Thousands owed in unpaid wages, up to 20-hour work days and forging of mandatory employment records are some of the serious allegations migrant workers have made to the WRC about the Irish fishing industry.

This is in spite of the Atypical Working Scheme – established in 2016 in response to reports of exploitation in the fishing sector. Its aim was to create and protect the employment rights of non-European Economic Area workers.

The scheme applies to specific fishing boats over 15 metres in length – currently just over 170 vessels or 9% of the Irish fishing fleet.

Since its establishment, it is evident from Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) case decisions that migrant fishers’ rights were repeatedly breached by vessel owners.

Our analysis of WRC cases taken by migrant fishers against vessel owners over the past number of years found that fishers’ were involved in a range of manual work. This physical labour involved carrying out any boat repair, throwing out, emptying and recasting nets, cleaning fish and being on watch.

These jobs were consistently repeated throughout the day for up to 20 hours, with little time for breaks, or adequate rest.

Long working days are common complaints in WRC cases. In a decision from November 2021, WRC adjudication officer Eugene Hanly wrote that a fishing trawler owner’s representative stated “that they did not maintain records of hours of work”.

The fisher claimed that he worked an average of 17 hours a day while at sea and 8 hours a day while on shore, with the WRC officer finding “he exceeded 72 hours per week” and was subsequently awarded over €15,000.

Hanly also noted that the industry is “subject to some very challenging weather conditions and the safety of fishermen is of paramount importance”.

“I find it essential that fishermen are protected against working excessive hours which may cause them to make errors in their work, which could negatively impact on their safety and that of their colleagues.”

Underpayments can add up with breaches having the potential to result in large monetary awards.