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Announcement: Europe’s first Worker-Driven Social Responsibility initiative launches pilot to fight the exploitation of workers at sea

January 9, 2024
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Poppy Reid

Communications Officer

FLEX, ITF and the Fair Food Program are pleased to announce the launch of a groundbreaking new programme which seeks to build worker-driven, market-enforced mechanisms and systems to improve working conditions in the UK fishing industry, following the exposure of widespread migrant labour exploitation.

Following an intensive twelve-month planning phase, the two-year pilot programme will now launch in Scotland, delivered by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) in partnership with the the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and in consultation with International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the Fair Food Standards Council and Dr. Jess Sparks, Assistant Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. The project will involve collaboration among several key stakeholders including retailers, vessel owners, human rights experts, and local community organisations.

Supply chain problems for UK fishing

Working in what is widely known to already be a harsh and dangerous working environment, migrant fishers are often left exposed and vulnerable to the risks of labour abuse and exploitation while at sea on British vessels. 

In recent years, the UK fishing industry has been beset with scandals and reports of the mistreatment of fishing vessel workers, including many reported concerns about systemic issues with pay inequalities, excessive working hours, physical violence, labour abuses and exploitative immigration schemes, as explored in previous blogs.

The reality of life for migrant fishers, (who predominantly come from the Philippines, Ghana and Indonesia, and working in UK territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone, was exposed in the research findings of Dr Sparks in 2022 and in a vivid and harrowing piece of investigative journalism published by the Financial Times in 2023.

Both publications drew attention to the immigration loophole of the seafarer’s ‘transit-visa’ which is overly relied upon by the domestic fishing industry as a means of hiring migrant workers at low-cost but denies these workers the protection of UK employment laws. Migrant fishers recruited into the UK on the transit-visa are not legally allowed to enter UK landed territory without special permission, and therefore in practice are often unable to access basic services and necessities including medical care.

Despite regulatory action and attempts to improve employment regulations for those working at sea in UK territorial waters, the reality has been the creation of a three-tier system where national and migrant fishers working within 12 nautical miles should be guaranteed basic employment rights, but many migrant fishers continue to be employed on vessels outside of the 12 nautical mile-limit on transit-visas, with no guaranteed UK minimum wage payment for the hours they work. 

Some measures have been taken to make the fishing industry compliant with UK immigration law, for example unclassified fishing occupations were added to the Shortage Occupation List in July 2023. Yet such measures have been brought into effect with little-to-no engagement with workers themselves or worker-representative organisations, and cannot be said to address the serious concerns of working conditions and worker exploitation that blight the UK fishing industry. The Government has also recently announced the scrapping of the Shortage Occupation List which threatens to remove this provision altogether.

What is WSR?

Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) is an exciting model for tackling labour abuse and exploitation in corporate supply chains, with more than a decade of proven results in industries ranging from agriculture to textiles. The model is designed to address the power imbalances that exist between workers and employers, as well as between buyers and suppliers, imbalances that drive many of the abuses found at the base of global supply chains today.

WSR involves a group of workers jointly establishing, monitoring, and enforcing their own rights. This is backed by legally-binding agreements between the workers and the companies at the top of supply chains that harness the purchasing power of those companies, to incentivise rights compliance. FLEX’s 2020 research paper explored the benefits that implementing a WSR model could have when tackling labour abuse in UK supply chains, particularly where there is a heavy use of out-sourced labour.

A WSR pilot for UK Fishing

This WSR programme for UK fishing is an ambitious project that is the first of its kind in Europe.

It will build upon learnings and examples from existing WSR programmes from across the world, such as the Fair Food Programme and the Bangladesh Accord. The Fair Food Programme was launched in the US in 2011 by one of the new UK pilot’s key partners, the CIW, and was a ground-breaking partnership that pioneered the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model. It presented a market-driven, scalable, and adaptable blueprint for protecting workers’ human rights that will be heavily drawn upon in the new UK pilot programme.

The pilot project has secured funding from Humanity United and the Freedom Fund to run for an initial two-year period starting from December 2023. It will be implemented in the North East of Scotland region, and begin with outreach work with migrant fishers and active engagement with key industry stakeholders in two key ports.

We are currently recruiting for an Outreach and Engagement Manager and two Outreach Workers for the project, descriptions of the roles and responsibilities can be found here

About the programme collaborators 

Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

FLEX is a UK charity working to end labour exploitation by challenging and transforming the systems and structures that make workers vulnerable to abuse. FLEX conducts research, advocacy work, coalition and capacity building, and strategic communications. Over the past 10 years, we have been at the forefront of working to prevent labour abuses, protect the rights of exploited and at-risk workers, and promote best practice responses to labour exploitation in the context of an increasingly challenging political environment. Our current work has a strong focus on making migration routes safer, strengthening the enforcement of labour standards, improving accountability in supply chains, and ensuring that workers’ views and lived experiences inform policy solutions.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We exist solely to protect and improve workers’ lives and futures. The ITF organises and encourages international solidarity among transport workers in every corner of the globe and supports 700 affiliate trade unions in 152 countries, representing 18.5 million workers – including seafarers and over 144,000 fishers worldwide. The ITF’s vision is of a world where fishers are empowered to fight for and win safer working conditions, better wages and benefits, and stronger protections — in the workplace, nationally, regionally, and globally.

ITF is supporting the WSR pilot programme as an independent partner and will not be receiving any funds. 

The Fair Food Program (FFP)

The Fair Food Program is a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the farmworkers. It protects tens of thousands of farmworkers harvesting over a dozen crops throughout the U.S., Chile, and South Africa.

Dr Jess Sparks

Dr Jess Sparks is an Assistant Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy (formerly Associate Director of the Ecosystems and Environment Programme at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab). Her research focuses on understanding a range of working conditions from decent work to forced labour and human trafficking in marine capture fisheries.