Migrant fishermen working on Irish-registered trawlers claim they have been exploited, underpaid, racially abused, worked to exhaustion and, in some cases, assaulted to a degree that their working conditions are akin to "modern slavery," the High Court has heard.

The court was also told that investigations carried out by migrant rights groups have revealed that on average fishermen from non-European Economic Area (EEA) countries worked an average of approximately 116 hours per week, yet were only paid an average of €2.83 per hour.

Following complaints made by fishermen, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) has brought proceedings against the State over a work permit scheme it claims is allowing the fishermen to be exploited.

The ITF says there are over a dozen cases of potential human trafficking arising from the scheme that are the subject of criminal investigations.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has been joined to the case as an 'amicus curiae' or friend to the court.

Counsel Feichin McDonagh SC for the Commission told the court that the case raised "important human rights issues".

In a preliminary application the ITF, which represents unions and transport workers worldwide, wants injunctions including one preventing any work permits under a scheme known as the 'Atypical Working Scheme for non-EEA Crew in the Irish Fishing Fleet' being granted or renewed.

The scheme was introduced by the Government in 2016 following the exploitation of workers within the Irish fishing industry exposed in a British newspaper report.

The ITF claims the scheme does not protect workers from exploitation and human trafficking and wants the injunction to be kept in place until its case against the scheme has been decided.

The action is against the Minister for Justice and Equality, Ireland and the Attorney General.

Represented by Sara Moorhead SC, the State has opposed the application for an injunction on grounds including that the ITF does not have the legal standing to bring the action.

Counsel said the ITF's claims concerning the scheme were hotly contested. While emotive language was being used in court it was not the case that the minister or the State was being complicit in any alleged trafficking or exploitation of persons.

Opening the case Matthias Kelly SC, with Michael Lynn SC, for the ITF, said the situation involving several of the men the ITF had dealt with was akin to "modern human slavery".

The scheme in the way it is framed had the unintended effect of not protecting workers who come from mainly African and Asian countries.

Mr Lynn said that the action was urgent as the ITF wanted to ensure no more workers ended up being exploited, adding that there is a positive obligation on the State to prevent human trafficking.

Mr Kelly said the ITF and many other bodies, ranging from Irish-based groups that deal with migrants to European Union bodies and the US State Department, have raised concerns about the effect the scheme has on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers.

Counsel said that a report by the Irish Migrant Centre had revealed that exploitation of non-EEA fishermen in the Irish fleet was "widespread".

These men, he said, were working an average of 116.9 hours per week and yet only received an average hourly wage of €2.83.

Counsel read sworn statements given by a number of the fishermen who claim they have been exploited while working in Ireland.

They were given contracts by fishing boat owners which allow them to work legally in the Irish fishing fleet.

However, the men said they were paid well below their legal entitlement of the National Minimum Wage.

The men said they were let go from the vessels despite being owed from €7,000 to €45,000 euro for hours they worked and were paid far less than Irish or fishermen from other EU states.

The men gave details of the physical and racial abuse they endured while working.

They said boats they worked on were often undercrewed, and expressed concerns at the level of health and safety standards.

One said the vessel he worked on did not have a fully functioning radar, and there were a number of near misses at sea.

They all complained of working long hours, up to 20 hours a day at sea, and complained of exhaustion.

They said they were often asked to sign documents that contained false information, hide fish that exceeded the boat's fishing quotas and given more dangerous work at sea than their EU crewmates.

If they complained the man said they were threatened with deportation, and in one case one said that he was assaulted.

One man said that one of his skippers had taken drugs while at sea including cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

The injunction application, which is before Mr Justice Tony O'Connor, continues.