A third of migrant workers on UK fishing boats work 20-hour shifts and 35% report regular physical violence, according to new research that finds rampant exploitation and abuse on British ships.
“It is not possible to leave because I am not allowed to get off the ship to ask for help,” a migrant worker told researchers at the University of Nottingham Law Laboratory, which focuses on modern slavery. They found that fishermen reported working excessive hours, with few breaks, at an average wage of £3.51 per 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 sexual violence, he said.
Workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana, Sri Lanka and India are recruited into the UK fishing industry on “transit visas,” a loophole that “legalizes 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 bind workers to a single employer. This leaves them dependent on ship captains for their working and living conditions, such as access to food and other essentials, and prevents them from changing jobs. So the workers can potentially be abused and controlled by dishonest shipowners.
In a separate report 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” labor exploitation of migrants on UK ships. . He called for the closure of the loophole that allows visas to be used on fishing boats.
Dr. Jessica Sparks, Associate Director of the Rights Lab and author of the report, said: “Exploitative practices are widespread and endemic on ships. Long hours for low wages are endemic. It is well known that migrants can be paid less.”
Interviews with migrant workers revealed “traumatic” experiences of physical violence and racism, he said. “There were very traumatic reports of being physically beaten by captains. Most migrants reported being discriminated against, especially Ghanaians, [and] racial slurs while the captains beat them. The amount of physical violence surprised me.”
The report also found evidence of forced or compulsory labor among migrant workers in the UK fishing industry.
One worker told investigators that “it is not possible to leave because I am not allowed to get off the ship 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 monitors my calls.”
Sparks interviewed 16 migrant workers and surveyed 166 registered boat crews in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
More than 60% of the migrant fishermen interviewed reported having heard or seen their co-workers being threatened or abused, either physically, sexually or psychologically. Around 75% said they felt discriminated against by their captain. One in three said they are unlikely to leave their job due to debt.
The report found that migrant workers did not know whom to trust, with more than 60% saying they would never report a complaint for fear of retaliation, either against themselves or their blacklisted families. Many had debts with employment agencies.
The report also contrasted the situation of migrant workers, who were poorly paid on a fixed salary, with local crews, who were paid a “crew share,” a percentage of the value of fish landed or Profits.
“The industry is engaged in a race to the bottom to reduce crew wages to maximize profitability,” he said. “These practices also have the potential to sow division between migrant and national fishermen.”
The UK relies on fishermen from non-EU countries such as the Philippines, Ghana and Indonesia, but people from these countries do not have an automatic legal right to work in the UK. Fishing vessel owners apply for transit visas on the basis that their vessel operates “wholly or principally” outside UK territorial waters, defined as more than 12 nautical miles from the coast.
Migrant fishermen using those visas must work the “majority” of their time beyond territorial waters, and have no legal authority to “enter” the UK when they return to port. As a result, they are forced to live on board the boats for up to a year, even though accommodation on fishing boats is generally not suitable for long stays.
The ITF said the current transit visa scheme created a “two-tier” labor system on board UK ships and the misuse of the visa scheme had become a tool to smuggle Ghanaians and Filipinos from the United Kingdom to the Republic of Ireland.
In response to the findings, the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, made up of national fisheries federations in the UK, welcomed the ITF’s findings that the transit worker visa was not fit for purpose, saying it did not meet the requirements of a modern fishing industry. Parts of the industry that employed non-British fishermen through the transit visa system had long lobbied the government for improvement, including recognizing fishermen as skilled workers, she said.
The FWA said it was still studying the University of Nottingham report, but added: “On first reading, it contains much that is not recognized by fishing industry representatives and is not representative of the situation across the UK, as claimed.” the report itself.
“As representatives of the industry, we deplore and condemn bad practices and mistreatment or unfair treatment of crew members, regardless of their nationality or immigration status.”