By Sonia Elks
LONDON, Feb 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ireland's work permit scheme for migrant workers in the fishing industry breaches the human rights of migrants and may be failing to prevent modern slavery, four United Nations human rights experts said on Monday.
The system, introduced in 2016, leaves workers tied to a single employer meaning they are vulnerable to abuse, the special rapporteurs on migrants, racism, slavery and trafficking said in a joint letter to the Irish government.
Migrants also had to persuade their employers to apply for their permit, with those whose bosses refused facing "no choice but to remain undocumented", they wrote.
"We are concerned that a number of migrant workers in the fishing industry may be victims of trafficking in persons for the purpose of forced labour or labour exploitation."
The Department of Justice and Equality said it took any allegation of exploitation very seriously and would examine the concerns raised in the letter.
The Aypical Working Scheme(AWS) was "a multi-faceted approach to tackling exploitation in the fishing industry," a spokesman for the department said, adding suspected victims of trafficking would be provided with all appropriate supports.
The AWS is intended to give migrant workers from outside Europe a legal route to work on Irish fishing vessels and ensure they get proper contracts and earn at least the minimum wage.
Critics of the scheme say it has not stopped abuse.
The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) said some workers endured "modern day slavery" conditions.
Many migrant workers on the scheme worked gruelingly long days and were paid for less than one-third of their total hours worked, according to an independent report commissioned by the ITF in 2017.
The ITF failed in a court bid in December which had aimed to get an injuction banning any further AWS permits being granted ahead of a planned fuller court case over the scheme. It is now preparing to enter mediation talks with the government.
"This is another vindication of what the ITF has been saying since this doomed scheme was brought in," Ken Fleming, the ITF coordinator for the UK and Ireland, said in a statement.
"Yet still the Irish government won't listen, so workers continue to suffer."
Ireland was downgraded last year from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in the U.S. State Department's annual report on countries' efforts to fight trafficking, which referred to civil society criticism over the nation leaving fishing fleets at risk of forced labour.
About 8,000 people in Ireland are modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation - which puts the worldwide number of victims at an estimated 40 million.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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