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Exploitation in the UK fishing industry; Problems with a lack of labour market enforcement

November 28, 2023

This guest blog has been written for FLEX by Dr Jessica L. Sparks, Assistant Professor at Tufts University and Chris Willaims, UK Fisheries Lead at the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).

Last year ITF wrote a guest blog for FLEX about the UK fishing industry which focussed on how the hostile environment and UK immigration policy facilitates the exploitation of migrant fishers. This vulnerable workforce has been invisibly propping up industry profits since the mid-2000s.

This new blog focusses on some of the issues ITF, FLEX and Dr Sparks highlighted in response to the recent Labour Market Enforcement Strategy call for evidence (DLME) 2024 to 2025, exposing the total lack of labour market enforcement in UK fishing.

The problem with limited monitoring and enforcement mechanisms

In the UK, no regulatory body has been empowered to enforce minimum wage among other fundamental labour laws, and this vacuum has been exploited by the fishing sector who have for over a decade been employing migrant crew on contracts which fall short of UK employment standards and rights. This is despite these migrant fishers being contracted employees working for UK companies, on UK flagged vessels, living and landing seafood into UK ports and selling into the UK seafood supply chain.

We believe that fishing should be classified as a high-risk sector for exploitation (as per the US TIP reports 2022/2023 and GRETA).

The seafarer’s transit visa creates an immigration loophole enabling this exploitation. Used in lieu of a work visa that would provide migrant fishers with access to labour market protections, when employed on a seafarer’s transit visa, fishers must live on board the vessel throughout the duration of the contract, which alongside other factors creates a dependence on the employer and increases crew’s vulnerability. While this loophole has now been closed for those working in UK territorial waters, other UK employment law is still not being upheld.

 Where does responsibility lie?

  • The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is responsible for implementing the International Labour Organisation’s ‘Work in Fishing Convention 2007’ (ILO C188), but lacks policing powers and has received no additional resources to enable the assessment of working conditions, resulting in insufficient inspections.
  • The National Crime Agency (NCA) has the maritime policing powers analogous to the GLAA, though in our experience, there is little engagement from the NCA with the fishing sector; however, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Police Scotland’s Modern Slavery Unit have more recently been actively engaged in criminal investigations.
  • Border Force has a safeguarding remit under the Modern Slavery Act, but only covers vessels fishing within 12 nautical miles.

Dr Sparks’ Findings

In 2022, an independent baseline study conducted by Dr Sparks of working conditions across the UK’s fishing fleet found wide-spread and systemic inequitable and exploitative working conditions for migrant fishers in comparison to UK national fishers, in addition to evidence of forced or compulsory labour, human trafficking, or modern slavery. These disparities included dimensions of working conditions, that while not always illegal, were also not tantamount to decent work as defined in UK law under The Work In Fishing Convention ILO C188 which the UK ratified in 2019.

Examples included working hours that deprived migrant workers of adequate rest, unequal pay for migrant workers, exploitative recruitment debt, normalised verbal and physical violence and non-compliant work agreements.

Key issues we raised in the Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME) Call for Evidence Response

  • There have never been official government statistics on the number of migrant fishers in the UK fishing industry. Employers are not required to report the employment of migrant fishers on the seafarer’s transit visa to the Home Office or any Labour Market Enforcement Body, nor does the Home Office register the entry of a fisher as a migrant worker when they present to UK border controls. This makes migrant workers invisible but also prevents regulatory bodies from carrying out targeted safeguarding assessments and pro-active inspections without intelligence, since government agencies do not know what vessels or ports the workers are associated with. Beyond this, it is unclear which Government agency or Labour Market Enforcement Body has a responsibility for monitoring and enforcing compliance.Immigration bodies should not be tasked with labour market enforcement responsibilities, both because they lack the specific legal expertise and also because the lack of immigration status makes migrant fishers scared to talk to immigration authorities for fear of removal from the UK.
  • UK minimum wage laws should apply to UK fishing vessels, which are UK flagged and leaving / returning to UK ports with no international port visits according to both the MCA and HMRC. However, the immigration legislation has enabled a twotier system between nationals and migrants doing the same work for the same company.  The recent Home Office announcement around the Nationality and Borders Act (NABA) has turned this two-tier system (two people being employed and paid differently for the same work) into a three-tier one (with deckhands being either self-employed on a share, employed as a skilled worker or employed for international work on a transit visa with no UK workplace protections), where deckhands doing the same work can be either share fishers, skilled worker visa fishers (protected by UK employment laws working inside UK territorial waters) and migrant fishers on transit visas fishing outside UK territorial waters but living and working on UK flagged vessels in UK ports and working for UK employers.
  • As a result of the immigration precarity under the transit visa system, migrant fishers are disincentivized from reporting abuses and other decent work deficits. The visas are processed by the employer / agency and workers are often not aware that they are in breach of the UK immigration laws by fishing without work permits.Because they do not have status to work in the UK, if they decide to report grievances, their options are typically limited to entering the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as a potential victim of modern slavery (potentially waiting years without access to work), be repatriated back home (forgoing expected wages) or continue working in indecent working conditions. The rampant practice of blacklisting (whereby workers are denied future work opportunities by the agency, employer or other groups), is a further deterrent to workers reporting abuse, creating an environment of retaliation that dooms existing rights monitoring and enforcement efforts to failure.
  • In practice, working hours are never recorded for employed migrant fishers, meaning excessive working hours and unpaid overtime, with wage retrieval claims for migrant crew becoming impossible. Further inhibiting the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) powers is the absence of a labour market enforcement function allowing them to enforce standards.
  • No pre departure training for migrant fishers is undertaken by the agencies in any of the labour sending countries that relates specifically to UK employment sharing information around immigration legislation. ITF has been sharing information with migrant crew and through affiliated unions and welfare groups, but there is no adequate preparation in country to raise awareness of their rights at work. No UK relevant employment or immigration rights training at any level has been provided since 2006 by their employers, agencies or industry bodies.  There has also been no guidance from central Government for migrant fishers and their rights at work.
  • There is still no formal guidance about which agencies (GLAA, MCA, HMRC, etc) will take on the responsibility of labour market enforcement in UK fishing.
  • To date, despite numerous arrests, there has never been a successful prosecution for forced labour, human trafficking, or modern slavery and any related fines to these cases have been inconsequential to the operators*.

Recommendations for the DLME:

  • The DLME should commission research to highlight the lack of data in the fishing sector when it comes to migrant workers on UK flagged vessels. Over the past 15 years no data has been collected on the number or nationality of migrant crew working in the UK fishing sector and this severe lack of data is a major problem.
  • The DLME should promote the issue and the resulting impacts to relevant maritime and immigration agencies to collect better data to help identify the level of non-compliance and the groups most impacted by it.
  • DLME should call for cooperation between the GLAA and the agencies responsible for the enforcement of workers’ rights as well as Modern Day Slavery legislation at sea.

Things are slowly starting to change in UK fishing but there are many gaps which need to be filled:

  • National minimum wage legislation
  • Overtime pay protections
  • National insurance
  • Income Tax (where applicable)
  • Work / rest hours
  • Pension contribution (auto enrolment after 3 months)
  • Length of employment contracts (paid leave)
  • Medical care
  • Social security
  • Secure reporting pathways in order to report labour abuses without fear of automatic data sharing with immigration enforcement.

*Additionally, migrant fishers have been deterred from entering the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) because of the length of time waiting for a decision, and their inability to work, and thus send remittances to their families, during that time due to their precarious immigration status.

For further information about the DLME response please contact Chris at [email protected]