By Sonia Elks
LONDON, April 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrant workers on Irish fishing ships will be given additional protections aimed at preventing modern slavery in the industry, under a deal agreed between the Irish government and a union.
Fishermen whose employment permits were previously tied to a single ship will now have the right to switch to another vessel without losing their right to work, said the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) on Tuesday.
Campaigners said the change would protect workers who were previously left vulnerable to exploitation by ship operators.
The changes were agreed in talks between the government and the ITF, which had been preparing to take Ireland to court over rules which it said had left fishing workers vulnerable to exploitation and slavery.
"This is an absolute fundamental change in attitude of the state at the highest level," Ken Fleming, the ITF coordinator for Britain and Ireland, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He warned, however, that enforcement of the changes would be crucial to ensure workers' rights were upheld in practice.
"We have to maintain a very close monitoring arrangement," he said. "We have already decided if this does not make a change, we are going back to court."
The Irish government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The changes will affect workers from outside Europe who serve on Irish fishing boats under the Atypical Working Scheme (AWS).
Employers will no longer be able to deduct the cost of obtaining an AWS permit from workers' wages, said the ITF.
Fishing fleet workers must now be given a contract in their own language and paperwork showing how many hours they have worked and the amount they have been paid, it said.
The Irish government will also strengthen regulations on working hours and conditions.
The AWS, introduced in 2016, was intended to give migrants a legal route to work on Irish fishing vessels and ensure they get proper contracts and earn at least the minimum wage. However, critics of the scheme said it had not stopped abuse.
Some workers had endured slavery conditions including being forced to work up to 22 hours a day in unsafe conditions and denied food by abusive bosses, said Fleming.
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.
Four United Nations rights experts had also raised concerns over the AWS in February.
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 Jason Fields. 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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