Ghanian fisher Joshua Baafi (second from left) said he is hopeful Ireland's parliament can get answers from officials who were supposed to protect workers like him | (Credit: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times)

The four migrant Ghanian fishers at the centre of the IFT case. Photo Credit: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is demanding that the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Irish government’s workplace watchdog explain gross mismanagement of a high-profile migrant fisher exploitation case.

In a formal communication sent to the chair of Oireachtas Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the ITF as the global voice for fishers has requested Maurice Quinlivan TD summon Ireland’s Minister for State Damien English and relevant officials to account for ‘catastrophic’ mishandling of civil and criminal proceedings related to the treatment of four Ghanaian fishers.

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The fishers’ case was first brought to light by the ITF and its then-coordinator for Great Britain and Ireland, Ken Fleming, who offered the exploited fishers shelter with him and his family in their time of need.

ITF Fisheries Campaign Lead for Ireland, Michael O’Brien, said Ireland’s parliament needed to be established exactly what went wrong when the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) missed by four months a statutory deadline for completing its investigation into the non-payment of wages owed to four undocumented Ghanaian fishers.

Mismanagement of the fishers’ case was then compounded when a parallel criminal case taken by the WRC against the vessel owner last month was dismissed by a judge when the WRC failed to produce the four Ghanaians as witnesses, the commission having not even informed the fishers that they had an opportunity to tell their story .

“Last month we deduced via a vague response to a parliamentary question seeking an update on the case that the WRC failed to conclude its civil investigation into the fishers’ unpaid wages before the expiry of the statutory deadline and so were unable to pursue the matter. The parliamentary question response simply said that the investigation was concluded and a report was submitted to the Department in September last year, without an acknowledgement that that report was four months too late to be of any use,” said O’Brien.

“At the time, the WRC made no contact with the ITF as the reporting organisation to tell us that they had failed to prosecute the vessel owner. They didn’t even tell the fishers themselves, the injured parties, that WRC incompetence meant the fishers’ chance of having justice was ripped away from them.”

“If the ITF hadn’t sought the submission of a parliamentary question it’s unlikely we would have even discovered the WRC’s failure. But it gets worse.”

“We had a tip-off that on 17 June this year there was a criminal hearing in Balbriggan District Court relating to charges against the vessel owner for failing to obtain work permits. Yet again, neither the ITF nor the exploited fishers were informed by the WRC about this case. Consequently, we weren’t called as witnesses to the hearing, and the fishers were denied the opportunity to testify on the abuses they experienced.”

“Not being there directly contributed to judge’s dismissal of the case. That means that WRC incompetence led to exploited fishers missing out on justice, and frankly that is unforgivable and a poor reflection on this state’s ability to uphold migrant workers’ rights.”

Michael O’Brien said the workplace commission’s shambolic conduct contrasted with the relatively better performance of the Irish Marine Survey Office, which in May 2019 secured conviction against a vessel owner in relation to the case of the four Ghanaian fishers, although O’Brien said the resulting €500 fine was still insufficient punishment.

The Garda  investigation into the potential human trafficking dimension of the case is still ongoing since the four fishers were admitted into Ireland’s National Referral Mechanism for suspected victims of human trafficking in April 2018.

Ghanaian fishers ‘dismayed’ by investigators’ radio silence

The high-profile case of Ghanaian fishers Noel Adabblah, Joshua Baafi, James Effirim and John Ninson was brought to light after then-ITF coordinator Ken Fleming reported to his significant concerns about the fishers’ welfare and treatment at the hands of a fishing boat owner to Irish authorities.

Upon hearing that the Ireland’s workplace commission had bungled their case on multiple occasions, fisher Joshua Baafi said that he was hopeful the parliamentary committee could get answers from the authorities.

“Myself and my three compatriots who endured terrible onboard conditions over a period of several months as reported at the time in the Irish Times are confused and dismayed that despite our full cooperation with the WRC investigation in 2018 it has all come to nothing,” he said.

“Why were we not kept informed of the progress of this case? Why were we not called as witnesses last month to testify about our treatment or even informed the hearing was taking place? We truly hope the committee will be able to obtain answers for us,” said Baafi.

Ireland risks becoming Europe’s maritime ‘exploitation capital’

The ITF’s Michael O’Brien said that between unsatisfactory responses to the PQs and the absence of a legal remedy for these fishers it falls to the TDs and Senators to get to the bottom of this saga.

“The mishandling of this case by the WRC and the evasiveness by which the Department has answered questions since, leaves the ITF with no option but to formally request the Minister and his officials get hauled in front of the Oireachtas Committee to explain all,” said O’Brien.

“Right now, there are fishers all over the world, human rights organisations, and important partners in our region looking at Ireland and asking ‘is this a country which takes its obligations to vulnerable workers seriously? Is Ireland becoming a breeding ground for exploitation?’”

“If Minister for State Damien English isn’t capable enough to front up and explain how this fiasco happened, then it is time for Minister and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar himself to tell us what steps the government will take to stop similar pending cases from being likewise botched.” said O’Brien.

Chair of the ITF’s Fisheries Section Jonny Hansen agreed with O’Brien, saying that Ireland’s reputation is on the line.

“The mishandling of this case by the Irish authorities coincides with the recent US State Department Trafficking in Persons report which we note placed Ireland again joint-bottom among EU states on their ‘Tier 2 Watchlist’ with Romania, and in doing so cited abuses in the fishing sector going undetected and unpunished,” said Hansen.

“If the Irish government is serious about rehabilitating Ireland’s international reputation when it comes to the treatment of vulnerable migrant workers, then a full accounting for this unacceptable debacle must take place the moment Ireland’s parliament reconvenes. Justice has taken too long already,” said chair Jonny Hansen. 

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Irish Government must answer lawmakers over ‘catastrophic’ mishandling of migrant fishers case

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