A third of migrant workers on UK fishing vessels work 20-hour shifts, and 35% report regular physical violence, according to new research that concludes there is rampant exploitation and abuse on British ships.
“Leaving is not possible because I’m not allowed off the vessel to ask for help,” one migrant worker told researchers at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, which focuses on modern slavery. They found fishers reported working excessive hours, with few breaks, on an average salary of £3.51 an hour.
Interviews with migrant workers on fishing boats across the UK revealed experiences of racism and many accounts of “extreme violence”, including two reported incidents of graphic and sexually violent acts, it said.
Workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana, Sri Lanka and India are recruited into the UK fishing industry on “transit visas”, a loophole that “legalises their exploitation”, according to the report, Letting Exploitation Off the Hook. Seafarers’ transit visas are intended to allow crew to join ships leaving UK ports for international waters, such as a container ship to China, for example.
These visas tie workers to a single employer. This leaves them dependent on the ship’s captains for their working and living conditions, such as access to food and other essentials, and prevents them changing jobs. Workers can then potentially be abused and controlled by rogue shipowners.
In a separate briefing published this week, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) outlined its own findings on the use of transit visas, suggesting it was leading to “systematic” labour exploitation of migrants on UK vessels. It called for the closure of the loophole that allows the visas to be used on fishing vessels.
Dr Jessica Sparks, associate director of the Rights Lab and author of the report, said: “Exploitative practices are widespread and endemic on vessels. Long hours for poor wages are endemic. It is well known that you can pay migrants less.”
Interviews with the migrant workers revealed “traumatic” experiences of physical violence and racism, she said. “There were very traumatic reports of being physically beaten by captains. Most of the migrants reported being discriminated against, especially Ghanaians, [and] racial slurs while being beaten by captains. The amount of physical violence was surprising to me.”
The report also found evidence of forced or compulsory labour among migrant workers in the UK fishing industry.
One worker told researchers that “leaving is not possible because I’m not allowed off the vessel to ask for help”, adding: “There is no way to contact anyone. The captain keeps my phone, and when he gives it to me he supervises my calls.”
Sparks interviewed 16 migrant workers, and conducted surveys with 166 crew members of vessels registered in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
More than 60% of migrant fishers interviewed reported hearing about or seeing their fellow workers being threatened or actually abused, whether physically, sexually or psychologically. About 75% said they felt discriminated against by their captain. One in three said they would be unlikely to leave their job because of debts.
The report found that the migrant workers did not know who to trust, with more than 60% saying they would never report a grievance out of fear of reprisals – either against themselves or their families being blacklisted. Many owed debts to recruitment agencies.
The report also contrasted the situation of migrant workers, who were poorly paid on a fixed wage, to local crews, who were paid a “crew share” – a percentage of the value of the fish landed or of the profit.
“The industry is in engaged in a race to the bottom to undercut crew wages to maximise profitability,” it said. “These practices also have the potential to sow division between migrant and national fishers.”
The UK relies on fishers from non-EU countries including the Philippines, Ghana and Indonesia but people from these countries have no automatic legal entitlement to work in the UK. Fishing boat owners apply for transit visas on the basis that their vessel operates “wholly or mainly” outside UK territorial waters, defined as more than 12 nautical miles from shore.
Migrant fishers using those visas are required to work a “majority” of their time beyond territorial waters, and have no legal authority to “enter” the UK when returning to port. As a result, they are forced to live onboard the vessels for up to a year, despite accommodation on fishing boats usually being unsuitable for long-term stays.
The ITF said the current transit visa scheme created a “two-tier” labour system onboard UK boats and that the misuse of the visa scheme had become a tool to traffic Ghanaians and Filipinos from the UK to the Republic of Ireland.
In response to the findings, the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, made up of national fishing federations in the UK, welcomed the ITF’s conclusions that the transit worker visa was unfit for purpose and said it did not meet the requirements of a modern fishing industry. The parts of the industry that employed non-UK fishermen through the transit visa system had long lobbied the government for improvements, including having fishermen recognised as skilled workers, it said.
The FWA said it was still studying the University of Nottingham report but added: “At first reading, it contains much that fishing industry representatives don’t recognise and is not representative of the situation across the UK, as the report itself states.
“As industry representatives, we deplore and condemn bad practice and crew members being badly or unfairly treated, regardless of their nationality or immigration status.”