Minister for Agriculture, Food, the Marine and Defence Simon Coveney, has described reports of the trafficking and exploitation of African and Asian workers in the Irish fishing industry as being of real concern.

The reports follow what The Guardian newspaper has described as a year-long investigation into the Irish prawn and white fish sector.

The reports, published this afternoon on the newspaper's website, allege migrant workers are being subjected to sleep deprivation, inhuman hours and low pay.

They also report claims that the Government was "turning a blind eye" to the alleged abuse.

Mr Coveney denied this, saying a specific garda unit had been established to investigate allegations of human trafficking in the fishing industry, while separate units in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the HSE and the Legal Aid Board were dealing with human trafficking more generally.

Mr Coveney said the newspaper reports would be examined and there would be an appropriate response from the Government.

Government is already looking at the issue of trafficking - Simon Coveney

Meanwhile Coordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation for the UK and Ireland has said his organisation has been raising concerns about abuse of migrant workers in the fishing industry for several years.

Today's newspaper report claims that workers in the fishing industry are being withheld pay and forced to do unpaid labour, some have had their passports withheld and their freedom of movement denied by boat owners.

It also says workers have been deprived of sleep, subjected to dangerous work practices, and some have been subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

The newspaper's investigation suggests that some boat owners and crewing agencies are smuggling African and Filipino workers in to Ireland through entry points at London Heathrow Airport and Belfast International Airport, and then arranging for them to cross from Northern Ireland in to the Republic by road, bypassing Irish immigration controls.

'Fishing industry must survive on migrants'

Speaking to RTÉ News, the UK and Ireland Coordinator for the ITF,Ken Fleming, said that Irish boat owners had come up with a sophisticated means of bringing migrant workers into the country to work on board fishing vessels for almost no pay.

He said boat owners had a mantra that the fishing industry has to survive on migrant workers, however he said this could be translated to say that the industry had to survive on slavery.

Mr Fleming said in recent times the Department of the Marine was trying to tackle the issue and had brought some prosecutions, however he said recently somebody who was prosecuted for having an illegal worker on board their vessel had been let go after making a donation to the poor box.

He said there had been no reaction from successive governments to the problem and no real input from Garda Immigration.

Mr Fleming said the industry had not had any work permits since 2005, and his organisation maintained that there was up to 8,000 migrant workers involved in the industry, most of them illegally.

He said he believed the Government was complicit in the abuse.

Mr Fleming said there were traffickers based in Ireland who were functioning with the support of the fishing industry.

He said there were no prosecutions taking place in relation to trafficking in the fishing industry.

Mr Fleming said the gardaí, the National Employment Rights Authority and the Department of the Marine needed to come together in one swoop.

He said the ITF would deploy additional resources in the new year to try to clean up the industry.