A trawler owner who denies he had migrant fisherman working 20-hour days at sea has said it was barely worth setting nets at night because prawns "don't like the dark".
Richard Brannigan, the operator of the Howth-based prawn boat Nausicaa, was giving evidence to the Workplace Relations Commission in response to statutory complaints by three of his former crew.
Fishermen Khaled Elagamy, Mohamed Shokr Ghonim and Salem Elfeky brought complaints under the Payment of Wages Act, the National Minimum Wage Act and the Terms of Employment Information Act against the owner of vessel’s owner, Richard Brannigan.
Their trade union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), has argued that the statutory working time records for the vessel are inaccurate and that they they are collectively owed around €140,000 – having been underpaid for long working hours at sea over several years.
A solicitor for Mr Brannigan says Naval Service vessel monitoring data has been obtained "unlawfully" by their trade union – and that commercial location data the men’s representative has sought to introduce in evidence cannot be relied upon.
At the opening of the hearing, the tribunal was told that Mr Elfeky was away at sea and unable to attend to progress his claim.
The trawler owner’s solicitor also conceded that Mr Elagamy was owed three days’ pay for public holidays in 2021.
However, Mr Brannigan denies the other breaches of employment law alleged by the complainants and maintains that all three of the men were properly paid.
Mr Elagamy previously told the tribunal that he and his colleagues worked up to 20 hours a day while the Nausicaa was trawling at its fishing grounds, averaging 17 hours a day for each day at sea with work on shore besides that.
Giving evidence, Mr Brannigan said the Nausicaa was the smallest fishing vessel operating out of Howth harbour at 19.5 metres and was limited in its range and fuel capacity,
He said the trawler could only spend nine or ten days at sea, and could only manage a certain number of trawls per day.
"On the Porcupine [Bank], all going well… maximum three [trawls]. Anywhere else the max you’d do is four tows – usually three during the day with a long one at night," he said, adding that it was not always economical.
"Prawns, they don’t like the dark. You’d always have a slack one in the morning. A lot of the time they wouldn’t be worth towing at night. A lot of the time they wouldn’t be working, towing at night," Mr Brannigan said.
Mr Brannigan’s evidence was that there was downtime for the crew between shots of the net and that it was "not possible" for his crew to be working the hours alleged by the complainant side.
He said the daily hours for his crew on the fishing grounds was "ten hours, maximum 12 hours", with two hours’ rest between shots of the nets.
"Mr Elagamy has given evidence that forms, weekly timesheets, were often produced to sign blank," said the respondent's solicitor, Ruairí Ó Catháin.
"But sure we were shown they weren’t though, NF, NF, NF [no fishing]," Mr Brannigan replied. "How can you get someone to sign a blank thing… I don’t know," he said.
Mr Ó Catháin put it to him that it was Mr Elgamy’s evidence that he had to do so to "keep his job".
"Why did he, every year come to renew his contract. You’d ask 'are you happy to renew?’" Mr Brannigan said.
He said that at the time the Atypical Work Permit Scheme had been in force, he only had the option to offer one-year contracts and that the contract terms were dictated by the Government.
He added that he had not given consent to the Government for data produced by the vessel monitoring system installed on the Nausicaa to be used for "employment law matters".
"[They’re] great lads, good lads, you know, no I’ve nothing against them at all," he said of the complainants.
The trade union rep, ITF organiser Michael O’Brien, questioned the trawler owner on hours of work and rest sheets required under the atypical work scheme.
"We’d do them during the week and Charlotte [Brannigan] would get them printed. She’d print them off and get lads to sign them," he said.
There was renewed legal argument on the admissibility of tracking data recorded by the Naval Service and from the trawler’s collision avoidance system.
Mr Ó Catháin said his client’s position remained that data released by the Naval Service in response to a Freedom of Information request by Mr O’Brien has been obtained unlawfully – and that commercial data was unreliable.
He said the trade union would have to produce a witness who could swear to the accuracy of the data if the tribunal was to rely on it.
Mr O’Brien said he wanted to put "improbable work patterns" he said had been recorded in the timesheets produced by the vessel owner.
"Mid-voyage it purports, according to these worksheets, that whole days were taken off by Mr Elagamy," he said.
He put a series of dates in 2021 to Mr Brannigan as examples when Mr Elagamy was said to have done no work at sea.
On October 2-3 that year, the witness suggested: "We could have been dodging bad weather, I don’t know," later adding: "we often dodge for four days, five days".
Mr O’Brien put it to him that on those dates, analysis of the vessel’s speed and course suggested that there had been trawling activity.
"I don’t know that, I’ve nothing," Mr Brannigan said.
"It’s in submissions," Mr O’Brien said.
"It was never put into evidence," Mr Ó Catháin said.
Mr O’Brien then put it to the witness that on 21 and 22 March 2021, the timesheets had again recorded that no work was done by Mr Elfaky mid-way through a voyage.
"How do you explain that?" Mr O’Brien said.
"Well I’d say if you go back and look at the forecast that would give you the swell on the west coast," Mr Brannigan said.
Mr O’Brien said that the vessel "being at sea on Saturdays and Sundays and no work being done" was a pattern.
Charlotte Brannigan, Mr Brannigan’s sister, spoke up and said there was "no fishing" recorded on the days in question and that entry had been recorded at other times.
"It’s not just a Saturday and a Sunday," she said.
Before Mr O’Brien could continue to put questions to Mr Brannigan on the records for October 30-31 2021, Mr Brady said: "There’s a lot going on here that falls a bit short of the evidence required to prove a complaint."
"It says it on the sheet, 'dodging’," Ms Brannigan said.
"Sheets I haven’t had sight of, by the way," Mr O’Brien replied.
After further dates were put to the witness, the adjudicating officer Pat Brady said: "Look, I have to say there is no better than insinuation that [Mr Elagamy] did not work. I would need to hear evidence from him that he did work on those dates."
He said he would allow Mr Elagamy to give evidence on that point on the next available date, and adjourned the hearing.