Four United Nations special rapporteurs have warned that Ireland’s permit scheme for migrant workers on fishing trawlers violates international human rights law. They sent a letter to the Irish government.

“We wish to express our concern that the atypical workers’ scheme does not provide for effectively preventing trafficking in persons for the purpose of forced labour and labour exploitation in the fishing industry,” the rapporteurs said.

The scheme was introduced in 2016 following a Guardian investigation that uncovered widespread exploitation and alleged trafficking of workers from Asia and Africa on to Irish trawlers. In an effort to give undocumented workers better protection, the government set up an emergency taskforce, which introduced permits under an “atypical workers’ scheme” (AWS) to work in its fleet.

According to a report published by the Guardian on February 19, visas under the scheme required employers to apply for them and tied migrants to individual bosses, leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous operators.

The rapporteurs said they had been given evidence that laws on minimum wage, maximum hours and safety were being widely flouted, while a quarter of Asian and African migrant workers in fishing boats had experienced verbal or physical abuse, and one in five had experienced racial discrimination.

A spokesman for Ireland’s Department of Justice and Equality said: “The minister takes any allegation of exploitation very seriously, particularly from UN special rapporteurs. A number of departments and agencies have responsibility in this area and will be responding to all matters raised.”