Irish justice system 'failing' migrant fishing workers who report exploitation

Our investigation finds 35 referrals of human trafficking in sector – but no prosecutions.

By Maria Delaney and Geela Garcia

Hands on Deck Investigation. Human trafficking of migrant fishers continues, seven years after issue first exposed. 35 referrals of alleged victims but no human trafficking prosecutions in the Irish fishing industry. US Report on Ireland:

“AFTER SEVERAL YEARS working back and forth as a seaman, it’s the first time that I experienced an employer that abused me. They mistreated us.”

Lloyd* didn’t know he would be fishing in Ireland. When he signed his contract in the Philippines, it was with a company based in Northern Ireland for work on a UK-registered boat.

But once his flight landed in Belfast – via Abu Dhabi and London – his new employer picked him up and a few hours later he arrived in a fishing port in Castletownbere, Co Cork, where the vessel was docked.

The 40 year old is both an engineer and deckhand, able to fix engines as well as manoeuvre nets on a boat. He is well used to tough work, with over a decade of experience in the profession, including in Scotland and his hometown on one of the most southern islands of the Philippines.

He came from a family familiar with seafaring and after his brother worked on boats in Europe, Lloyd followed in his footsteps. Paid just Php 380 (€6.50) per day at home, like many other migrant workers from the archipelago, he left the country to seek better-paying jobs abroad.

“Compared to all my other years working as a seafarer, this is the hardest because I don’t get any rest… Fishing is continuous. You only get to sleep three to four hours, and work 20 to 21 hours a day.”

Lloyd is one of hundreds of fishers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) in Ireland, with workers from the Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia and Egypt on trawlers catching whitefish and prawns off Ireland.

The Wild Atlantic Way Castletownbere Harbour sign is in the foreground with boats, including a lifeboat in the harbour behind. Castletownbere during a visit by the investigation team in October
Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Over the past six months, as part of our HANDS ON DECK cross-border investigation, Noteworthy teamed up with journalists in both the Philippines and Ireland to investigate exploitation in the Irish fishing industry. We can now reveal:

  • There has been “an across the board failure” by the justice system when it comes to trafficking of migrant fishers, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)
  • An increase in alleged human trafficking victims not being formally recognised by gardaí and not being admitted through the relevant mechanism
  • Of 35 referrals of alleged trafficking in the Irish fishing industry since 2017, six files were sent to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), with no prosecutions to date
  • Seven years after the transit of fishers through Northern Ireland to work on vessels off Ireland was exposed by an investigation by The Guardian, human trafficking victims continue to present in similar situations to authorities
  • In 2022, the United States Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report stated that Ireland was “increasing efforts” to tackle trafficking but “systemic deficiencies in victim identification, referral and assistance persisted” – one of “several key areas” where “the government did not meet the minimum standards”
  • At least 4% (18) of non-EEA fishers in a controversial working permission scheme have been formally recognised as victims of trafficking
  • Organisations representing vessel owners contest claims of widespread trafficking and exploitation in the sector

This investigation was supported by’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme. We also examine a problematic working permission scheme and how proposed changes to improve it are leaving the most vulnerable fishers behind.

‘I felt the punch land’

For over seven months Lloyd worked on the UK-registered boat off Ireland. He was assigned to pull the net during the times he was at sea fishing prawns and, as an engineer, he also had to be on alert in case of any problem with the vessel’s engine.

Though on a UK visa, he was also asked to fix a tractor engine at his employer’s home on Irish soil, something the Workplace Relations Commission are now investigating.

“We can only rest if the weather is bad. We are thankful when there are strong winds because there’s a possibility we won’t go to the sea, but that still depends on the owner of the ship, and sometimes that’s not enough of a reason.”

Lloyd said that he experienced racism on the ship, with around €1,200 being lodged into his bank account per month which, depending on the catch, was significantly less than crew members from the EU. He also said he was physically abused by a skipper, being punched “randomly in the stomach”.

“It hurt. I felt the punch land. I told him if he did that again I’d report him.”

Human trafficking for labour exploitation can involve a number of dimensions which can be assessed using a set of methodologies.

During their assessment, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) found numerous indicators applied to Lloyd’s case including: “Deceived about the nature of the job, location or employer”, “excessive working days or hours”, “violence on victims” and “debt bondage”.

However, despite being assessed by both the gardaí as well as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in recent months, Lloyd’s case has not been taken any further.

He was not asked to make a formal signed statement by the gardaí. Now, because he is undocumented, he faces possible deportation in the coming months.

He is not alone.

No prosecutions to date

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework for referring victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive appropriate support.

Between 2016 and 2020, just one person was not admitted to the NRM, out of 25 allegations relating to the fishing industry. 

But latest figures provided to Noteworthy by the gardaí show that since the start of 2021, there were 10 allegations, with just four victims admitted to this mechanism.

Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and who initially interviewed Lloyd when he presented to them – claimed that “the guards, the Department of Justice, the DPP – as a collective – have failed to deliver for migrant fishers” and other vulnerable workers when it comes to human trafficking. “There’s been an across the board failure.”

He said that all submissions they make to the gardaí now “are more or less of equivalent strength” to those submitted with a “high hit rate of admissions in 2017 and 2018”, but felt that the position of the different authorities involved “has hardened now”.

Because of this, it has “become ever more difficult” for the ITF to get fishers admitted to the National Referral Mechanism, he said.

Updated figures given by the gardaí to Noteworthy show that there have been 35 referrals made to them since 2017 “in respect of the Irish fishing industry”, with six investigation files forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and a number of others ongoing.

And importantly, has this led to any prosecutions? A garda spokesperson said: “The Director of Public Prosecutions has not directed any prosecutions on any file to date.”

An Garda Síochána told Noteworthy that it investigates “all matters pertaining to any specific case and a file is forwarded to the DPP who will direct to prosecute or not”. 

In relation to the PSNI, Chief Inspector Julie Mullan said that they “have a dedicated Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking team that investigate all allegations” in Northern Ireland. She continued:

These investigations mostly relate to migrant workers recruited in their country of origin and then allocated work on-board a vessel in UK waters. Many allegations include excessive working hours, physical abuse, poor remuneration, debt bondage and punishment for poor outcomes.

Though Lloyd was referred by the ITF to Irish authorities, he was not formally recognised as a victim of human trafficking by the gardaí – currently the only authority allowed to identify victims under the National Referral Mechanism.

That is despite the government approving revisions to this mechanism in May 2021 which would allow six additional agencies – including the HSE and Tusla – to undertake this vital task.

The Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2022 will bring these revisions into effect. It was published in July 2022 but there has been no further progress on it as yet.

A Department of Justice spokesperson told the investigative team that once this Bill is enacted, the revised National Referral Mechanism “should make it easier for victims to come forward to seek protection and to access all of the support and resources that are available to them”.

Large nets on circular reels on the back of a fishing vessel. Vessels that employ non-EEA workers include polyvalent and beam trawlers of greater than 15m length
Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

‘Systemic deficiencies’ identified in report

These issues have been known for a long time; a Guardian investigation in 2015 exposed how migrant workers were being abused and trafficked in the Irish fishing industry. In response, the government introduced the Atypical Working Scheme (AWS) for non-EEA crew in the Irish fishing fleet to try to regulate the industry.

Yet the problem hasn’t gone away. Experts state that the Scheme has now become a vehicle to exploit the same workers it was introduced to protect.

At least 4% (18) of non-EEA fishers who were AWS permission holders have been formally recognised as victims of trafficking since its inception by the government in 2016, with many others taking cases relating to unpaid wages and poor working conditions to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

An expert who has represented fishers in court cases told the investigative team that this work permission made it “legal to exploit” migrant fishers, with few “real consequences”.

  • The findings of this review as well as the AWS fishers’ scheme is investigated in-detail in an article coming out tomorrow as part of our HANDS ON DECK series.

In recent years, exploitation and trafficking within the Irish fishing sector has been reported both nationally and internationally – by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) in 2017, by researchers from Maynooth University in 2021 and in successive annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) reports from the United States government.

The TIPs report was mentioned as having particular significance in a recent Irish cross-departmental review of the AWS. It stated:

As US law includes measures restricting or prohibiting companies in that jurisdiction from engaging in business in countries of significant concern… failure by Ireland to address the matters raised in the TIPs report is likely to have significant adverse impact on foreign investment and business with the State.

Issues in the Irish fishing industry are consistently cited by the US TIPs reports.

Due to a lack of trafficking convictions as well as “chronic deficiencies in victim identification and referral”, Ireland no longer meets the US law’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. This resulted in Ireland being downgraded from a ‘Tier 1’ country to ‘Tier 2’ in 2018.

Lack of convictions lead to “weakened deterrence, contributed to impunity for traffickers and undermined efforts to support victims to testify”, according to the TIPs report in 2020 when it further downgraded Ireland to the ‘Tier 2 Watch List’.

Here it joined Romania as the only other EU Member State at that level, alongside Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Brunei among others. No EU countries are on the Tier 3 list which includes China, Iran, Russia and Syria.

When the cross-department review was finalised in March 2022, the authors were concerned that “a failure by Ireland to sufficiently address the issues highlighted in the TIPs report may give rise to a further downgrading of Ireland to ‘Tier 3’ status”, with the consequences of this having “the potential to be severe”.

Both Ireland and Romania were removed from the ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ in July 2022 and are currently at ‘Tier 2’. For Ireland, the latest TIPs report stated that this was due to “increasing efforts”. However, it added that “systemic deficiencies in victim identification, referral and assistance persisted” – one of “several key areas” where “the government did not meet the minimum standards”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told Noteworthy that “recent progress has been acknowledged and reflected” in this report. This includes the upcoming revised National Referral Mechanism and the fact that “work is also advancing on the development of a new National Action Plan on Human Trafficking which is expected to be agreed soon”.

Apart from the potential economic consequences – given our reliance on US-based multinationals – another motive for these “increasing efforts” was the publication of a report by researchers from Maynooth University in October 2021. This research was funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

The study documented the experiences of non-EEA workers in the fishing industry and found “extremely long working hours with few breaks”, pay often below minimum wage and racist insults “were common workplace experiences” of fishers they interviewed.

Though trafficking was not the focus of the report, it highlighted a number of important trafficking-related issues including “severe violations such as withholding of wages, being forced to perform additional unpaid work-related tasks” as well as “the use of deception and coercion as a means of control”.

The TIPs Report 2022 also stated that “several descriptions” in the Maynooth report “from the 24 interviewed sea fishers could meet the threshold for trafficking”. This included “the use of fraudulent recruitment and non-violent psychological coercion via threats of permit revocation and subsequent deportation”.

This, it stated, “coerced sea fishers into less pay, longer hours, more dangerous situations, and the endurance of racial and verbal abuse, as well as several instances of forced criminal activity by coercing sea fishers to hide fish, in contravention of quota regulations”. In addition, “fear of reprisal and permit revocation, as well as language barriers, were obstacles for victims to engage with inspectors”.

The issue of trafficking within the fishing industry can be “tricky”, according to lead researcher on the study Dr Clíodhna Murphy, associate professor of law in Maynooth University. That is because it is usually related to “trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation”.

“In Ireland, we don’t have… what they have in the UK – the idea of modern slavery,” Murphy explained. This “can include forced labour separate to trafficking”.

“In order to pursue instances of forced labour in Ireland, you have to go through the trafficking framework”, but because “there are so many deficiencies” in this, it doesn’t offer “very much in the way of solutions” for individuals “trapped in an exploitative situation”.

‘Vast majority of industry wants a solution’

The findings of these reports are contested by organisations who represent fishing vessel owners.

A response to the Maynooth University report, from three Irish producer organisations – Irish South & East Producer Organisation (IS&EPO), Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO) and Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO), submitted to the Department of Justice as part of the review of the AWS fishers’ scheme – and obtained by Noteworthy via freedom of information request – stated:

“The ITF is very biased against the fishing industry and accuses Irish vessel owners of human trafficking which is a very serious accusation and completely unjustified.”

This is reiterated by Patrick Murphy, chief executive officer at Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WPO) – who represents vessel owners. He said that “if somebody’s trafficked into the country to be abused, then that person that brought them into the country should be prosecuted”.

He challenged whether all the fishers admitted to the National Referral Mechanism were victims of trafficking citing the lack of subsequent prosecutions in relation to the fishing industry.

I don’t understand why, if there’s a file sent to the DPP and there’s massive breaches in trafficking… I don’t understand why the guards aren’t doing their job.

He was also said that “there has to be responsibility on the person that is coming over” and claimed that some are “coming over under false pretences” – unqualified or not able for the hard work involved in fishing here.

Of the 35 referrals of alleged trafficking, he said he wasn’t saying that they “don’t have a case” and added:

“I don’t believe that there is 100% goodness in the industry. I believe fellas could fall on hard times or there could be miscommunications…. But the vast majority of the industry wants a solution here. The only one that can provide a solution is our government.”

The ITF’s O’Brien told the investigation team that “fundamentally vessel owners, as employers, have to be responsible”, adding that “patchy enforcement on the part of various authorities” needed to be addressed.

In regard to cases where fishers are brought through Northern Ireland, Murphy said that “is a scandalous way to treat human beings” and “wouldn’t stand over that for one second”. He said “in an instance like that, that’s complete abuse”.

Ongoing impact of trafficking

In addition to Lloyd, a number of other migrant fishers have been alleged victims of trafficking in recent years. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s O’Brien, this includes other Filipinos recruited by similar means, with some still remaining on fishing vessels.

This is not a new situation. In 2018, it was reported that four Ghanaian men arrived in Belfast believing they would be working on British trawlers. They were driven from there to Howth in Dublin and allegedly worked on a number of UK and Irish-registered boats in locations around Ireland.

As with Lloyd, these men frequently worked 20 hours without breaks until they were suddenly allegedly told there was no more work for them. The four fishers then became homeless and looked to the ITF for help.

Though there were civil and criminal cases taken in relation to the four Ghanaians, two of these cases failed due to the WRC’s “shambolic conduct”, according to the ITF.

O’Brien explained that the WRC missed a statutory deadline by four months for completing an investigation for non-payment of wages.

A parallel criminal case in relation to employing workers without a permit was taken by the WRC against the vessel owner. O’Brien claimed was dismissed when the WRC failed to produce the four Ghanaians as witnesses. O’Brien said this was because they did not inform them that the case was taking place.

When asked about this, a spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE) – which the WRC sits under – told Noteworthy that “the WRC does not as a matter of course comment on the content of specific investigations or proceedings”.

“Generally, the WRC does not require as witnesses any non-EEA nationals who worked without permission. However, each case is treated on its merits.

“In this case the proceedings, which arose from an investigation and associated enquiries undertaken by the WRC, were dismissed on the day of the hearing by the presiding Judge.”

The spokesperson did not provide a response to O’Brien’s position on the WRC’s conduct in relation to this case.

The Marine Survey Office (MSO) did manage to secure a €500 fine as well as €500 costs against the vessel owner in 2019 for various maritime non-compliances relating to hours of rest and safety training.

Though the four were admitted into the National Referral Mechanism as suspected victims of human trafficking in 2018, according to O’Brien, the DPP told the fishers in recent weeks that they are not going to prosecute the vessel owner.

We spoke to one of the Ghanaians, Daniel*, involved in this case – who asked for his name not to be included as he is trying to rebuild his life.

He still lives in Ireland and told the investigative team that garda assistance helped gain an Irish work permit. “They said it’s not our fault,” Daniel explained when speaking about the process.

He is now happily working in a land-based job with his own apartment – a huge change from having to sleep, live, cook and “do everything on the boat”.

For Daniel, the entire experience had a huge impact on both him and his extended family. “It wasn’t easy. You just came to make a living but then there is a whole story, you are trafficked… there is a lot of stigma that you have to deal with.”

With help from the ITF and gardaí, he felt that for him and his colleagues, “it might be a different story”.

However, because the WRC cases fell through, he claims that he is still owed money from his previous employer. “We were not given anything… the case was in court for so many years and nothing came out of it,” he said.

He is calling for Irish authorities to give more support to migrant fishers to prevent others going through what he did.

“Fishing has been in this country for years so [people] should appreciate the work of the fishermen. When you meet Irish people, they tell you ‘I’m not going to do fishing’. So if somebody from somewhere is coming, [authorities] need to give the necessary support to that person because he’s doing it for the country.”

Large nets on reels with a view into the interior of a fishing vessels with plastic buckets inside an open door. Many migrant fishers are in debt before they even begin to work on Irish vessels due to agency fees
Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Spending months paying off recruitment debt

Another challenge that both Daniel and Lloyd experienced was a fee being charged by recruitment agencies. Daniel told the investigative team that “back home in Ghana, a lot of recruiters take money and even assets nowadays”.

This is a big problem, he added, as when fishers come here from abroad, “before they see the clear picture of what is happening”, they have already “sold everything they have”. He asked: “So what do they have now? They don’t have anything. So the only option for them is to listen to the boat owners.”

Though some fishers who spoke to our team didn’t have to pay such a fee, those who went through one particular recruitment agency in the Philippines all told us of the stress that these charges incurred, with many acquiring high interest loans to pay it off.

Lloyd was one such fisher. Despite exhausting working hours, he was not able to send a single cent home for his children’s education during the first three months of his time in Ireland because his salary had to pay his agency’s placement fee.

He had to pay “show money” of Php 100,000 (€1,700) to a Filipino recruitment agency near Manila – a fee he hadn’t encountered before when working abroad and an illegal practice under Philippine law. This was paid through a loan from a lending company located four kilometres away from the agency’s office.

Lloyd explained that the lending company had the ATM card of the bank account that his wages were lodged into. “They are the ones withdrawing money for me.”

Through conversations with Irish workers involved in the recruitment of migrant workers to the fishing industry, our investigation found out that vessel owners were also paying fees to the same agency for these workers to come to Ireland.

This is not a new issue, being reported by media outlets in relation to trafficking cases over the past number of years. Yet it continues to persist, with experts concerned that it puts migrant fishers in Ireland at risk of debt bondage – where victims are tricked into working for little or no money to repay a debt.

Noteworthy also saw email correspondence between a vessel owner and another Filipino agency after a fisherman from the Philippines left the vessel due to allegedly not being paid per the terms in his contract. The agency wrote that fisher should be “blacklisted”.

According to Sancha Magot, who interacts with many fishers from the Philippines and other non-EEA countries as drop-in centre manager at the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), “agencies are there to earn money – they are profiting”.

Some unscrupulous recruiters don’t care what will happen to the fisher or others that they deploy as long as they will earn.

When the Department of Justice (DOJ) was asked about the practice of agencies charging migrant fishers and if anything was being done to address exploitation of workers by agencies, a spokesperson said that “applicants under the Atypical Workers Scheme do not need to use an agent to submit their application” and “can do so directly” through their online portal.  

We also asked the DOJ if there were any plans to regulate agencies such as this more strictly. A spokesperson said that “the regulation of employment and recruitment agencies operating outside of this state is a matter for the relevant State’s own authorities”.

“Any person employed in Ireland is subject to and protected by Ireland’s employment laws.” The spokesperson also stated that the DOJ “keeps the operation of its immigration policies under review”.

Under the recent review of the Atypical Working Scheme, it is recommended that non-EEA fishers are moved to a general employment permit which would grant additional rights to the workers. 

For these permits, a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE) spokesperson said that “any business arrangement entered into by applicant employer or employee with recruitment companies/agencies or labour sourcing companies in another country is a matter for those parties to the application”.

When told that a recruitment agency in the Philippines was charging both fishers and vessel owners, the DETE spokesperson said that “the Department of Justice is not aware of specific cases of recruitment agency charges in the country referred to” and added that “if such information came to light, the Department of Justice might take that into account when considering visa applications”. 

The DETE spokesperson also said that “the employment permits legislation… prohibits the deduction from the remuneration of a permit holder, any charge, fee or expense arising out of the application for the permit, or the recruitment or travel expenses incurred in the course of an employment permit application process”. 

MRCI’s Magot said that “the Filipino government – as it happens in the country of origin – should [take] more responsibility”.

We asked the Department of Migrant Workers in the Philippines – who are “tasked to protect the rights and promote the welfare of overseas Filipino workers” – a number of questions around exploitation and trafficking of Filipinos in the fishing industry and what is being done to address recruitment agency charges. We did not receive a response in time for publication.

A woman sits in a room darkened to obscure her identity - in front of her window with curtain drawn. Lloyd’s mother worries about the cost of sending her grandkids to school
Source: Geela Garcia in the Philippines

Lloyd’s mother and two teenage sons live in an agricultural area of the Philippines, surrounded by coconut trees. They were kept in the dark about the reality of his situation and only found out because he was unable to send money to support his children.

The only thing he was able to transfer home was Php 16,000 (€270), which was used to repair the house’s bathroom, which is still not finished.

“We were able to buy hollow blocks and some cement for it. The money left was sent back to Lloyd, because he eventually needed cash,” said Martha*, Lloyd’s mother.

Lloyd currently works on a farm in Ireland. His 69-year-old mother told the investigative team that she felt he was abandoned, “going [from] place to place to find someone who’ll give him food”.

“We are worried about him, and it’s sad that he’s working as a farmer over a mechanic, but he said that he really couldn’t handle the maltreatment anymore.”

Because Lloyd is barely earning, according to Martha, she works to help her grandkids by selling coconuts and making sweeping brushes. “We don’t know how we’ll be able to buy [their] uniform. A set costs Php 2,500 (€42) to Php 5,000 (€84). It’s a lot of money.”

For Lloyd, he makes a final plea saying his circumstances are currently very difficult. “I hope people can help me with my situation.”

*Names have been changed

Hands on Deck


As part of this investigation, our team reveals how recently announced reforms in the fishing sector are leaving the most vulnerable workers behind. We also analyse the findings of navy inspections at sea, with a number of fishing vessels almost fully crewed by migrant workers.

Have a listen to The Explainer x Noteworthy podcast on the investigation’s findings.

A version of this article was also published by Philstar in the Philippines. 


Design for HANDS ON DECK - Fisher on vessel wearing protective clothes and gloves holding a net, with a catch of Dublin Bay prawns in the background.

By Maria Delaney of Noteworthy and Geela Garcia

Reporter Louise Lawless was also part of our cross-border team. The investigation was supported by’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme.

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