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fishing boat UK

New report lays bare the exploitation in the UK fishing industry

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

UK immigration loopholes are allowing the fishing industry to exploit migrant fishers, leaving them open to deportation, through no fault of their own, and being paid well below the minimum wage.

These are some of the findings detailed in a new report following research into the UK fishing industry by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab - the world's largest and leading group of modern slavery researchers.

Key findings include:

  • 35 per cent of fishers reported experiencing regular physical violence – with some workers recounting being racially abused or experiencing extreme sexual violence.
  • The average salary for migrant fishers working in the UK was £3.51 per hour – well below the National Minimum Wage in the UK at £9.50 an hour.
  • One participant, a UK national, told researchers: “I heard a vessel owner say. No – he proudly declared: I can get 2-3 foreign crew for the price of one of you local lads.”
  • 19 per cent of participants reported conditions comparable to forced labour with an additional 48 per cent reporting potential cases.
  • Due to legal loopholes, non-European migrants with transit visas have no legal authority to “enter” the UK without permission when returning to port and are forced to live on board the vessels.
  • Vessel owners and recruitment agencies are issuing work agreements that are non-compliant with UK regulation, causing migrant fishers to be unduly treated as violators of UK immigration law even when other parties are responsible for the illegal nature of their work.
  • More than 60 per cent of fishers (including UK nationals) said they would never report a grievance out of fear of blacklisting - the practice of restricting re-employment opportunities for fishers.

The research, led by modern slavery expert Dr Jess Decker Sparks, is one of the first to independently assess working conditions across the UK through fishers’ first-hand account of their experiences. Previous research has focused on certain regions of the UK and surveyed senior staff rather than crews.

In January 2020, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) (2007) Work in Fishing Convention (C188) came into force in the UK. In conjunction with the Modern Slavery Act, on paper, the UK has one of the most stringent fisheries labour regulation environments; yet, as this report demonstrates, the abuse of migrants continues.

Dr Jess Decker Sparks Nottingham Research Fellow and Rights Lab Associate Director, said: “There is a critical need to stop assuming that labour abuses and forced labour only happen in fisheries outside of UK borders, as this study presents compelling evidence that exploitative labour practices are endemic across the UK fishing industry.          

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These practices are compounded by ambiguous laws that are often interpreted differently by different actors. Without immediate change, the UK will continue to fail to meet its obligations and responsibilities under both international (ILO C188) and domestic law (Modern Slavery Act), but most importantly will continue to perpetuate inequalities between migrant and domestic fishers.
Dr Jess Decker Sparks Nottingham Research Fellow and Rights Lab Associate Director

Dr Decker Sparks continued: “The exploitation of migrant fishers not only hurts those individual fishers, but also creates an unfair competitive advantage that rewards operators skirting laws and regulations, ultimately flattening the success of law-abiding operations and the coastal communities that depend on fisheries the most.

“Findings from this research should not be used to trivialise, demean, or even vilify the hard work that fishers engage in every day. Instead, it should be used to compel actors across the industry to collaborate to effect real change. Fishing can provide rewarding work for both domestic and migrant fishers across the UK if decent and fair working conditions are assured on all UK fishing vessels.”

Legal loopholes

The researchers report that, despite fishing crew being eligible for skilled-worker visas, there is no evidence of non-European (non-EEA) migrants working on these skilled-worker visas. Instead, as the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) exposed in a policy briefing released yesterday, non-EEA migrants continue to enter the UK through the use of transit visas which exploits a lack of legal clarity in UK immigration law.

As a result, migrant fishers are required to work a “majority” of their time beyond the 12 nautical mile boundary (although this is not quantified or explained and is therefore open to interpretation, which makes enforcement difficult) and have no legal authority to “enter” the UK without permission when returning to port following their first fishing trip and repeatedly thereafter during their 10–12-month contract. Consequently, they are forced to live on board the vessels, creating multiple employment dependencies that can be readily exploited by vessel owners.

This loophole in UK law is allowing vessel owners to exploit migrant fishers’ vulnerable position. The UK Government must close this loophole and with it the systematic labour exploitation, modern slavery and effectively forced labour of migrant fishers that has been explosively laid bare to the UK public today.
Chris Williams from the ITF Fisheries Section

Working conditions

Most migrant fishers surveyed reported working excessive hours in violation of ILO C188 with pay substantially less than domestic and European Economic Area (EEA) fishers. For example, 60 per cent reported working a minimum of 16 hours per shift and 1/3 reported working more than 20 hours per shift. Additionally, 30 per cent reported that they never received 10 hours of rest. Because they are required to stay on board the vessel while in port, another 25 per cent reported that they never receive 77 hours of rest in a 7-day period because they are required to clean and repair the vessel, take the gear off the vessel, or mend nets on their days “off” in port.

When accounting for monthly salary, debt, catch-based bonuses, and average hours of work (excluding informal port work), the average salary for migrant fishers was equivalent to £3.51 per hour - well below the National Minimum Wage in the UK at £9.50 an hour.

Forced labour, violence and racism

In addition to this systemic overworking and underpaying, 35 per cent of fishers reported experiencing regular physical violence. Multiple narratives of extreme violence also emerged, with one fisher describing being beaten while the skipper’s son yelled racial slurs and two fishers reported graphic and extreme sexually violent acts. Comparing responses against the ILO’s two core dimensions of forced labour (involuntary work and threat or menace of penalty), almost 19 per cent of participants reported probable forced and compulsory labour while an additional 48 per cent reported potential cases of forced and compulsory labour.

A large proportion of those surveyed (65 per cent), which includes UK nationals, reported that they were worried about the effects of blacklisting: the practice of restricting re-employment opportunities for fishers. Employed migrant fishers were 12 times more likely to say that blacklisting would prevent them from changing jobs if they were being treated unfairly.

One participant said: “Leaving is not even possible because I’m not allowed off the vessel to ask for help. There is no way to contact anyone. The captain keeps my phone and when he gives it to me he supervises my calls.”

The full report, Letting exploitation off the hook?, can be found here: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/Research/Beacons-of-Excellence/Rights-Lab/resources/reports-and-briefings/2022/May/Letting-exploitation-off-the-hook.pdf

This work was funded by the Nottingham Research Fellowship and the UKRI ESRC Impact Acceleration Award. Responses were collected from June 2021 through to February 2022.

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Jessica Decker Sparks in the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham at jessica.sparks@nottingham.ac.uk

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