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How UK immigration policy is leading to exploitation at sea

June 20, 2022

In this guest blog for FLEX, Chris Williams, UK Fisheries Lead at the International Transport Workers Federation, discusses ITF’s recent briefing on the exploitation of migrant workers in the UK fishing industry through the use of transit visas, and what can be done to improve conditions for migrant fishers.

The P&O scandal highlighted the complex nature of Maritime law and impact of labour shortages exacerbated by Brexit. In 2022, P&O sacked nearly 800 crew by Zoom, replacing them with non-UK agency workers to save costs – paying some from India as little as £1.80 per hour.

But P&O isn’t the only scandal involving systemic underpayment of migrant labour at sea.

The UK fishing industry is engaged in a race to the bottom, with fishing companies undercutting UK wages, labour standards and working conditions by employing migrant crew on highly restrictive transit visas that limit their ability to change employer and even leave the vessel they are working on. Brexit means the use of this visa is now increasing, as the EU labour option has been lost.

The visa exists for merchant shipping to ‘transit’ crew to vessels operating outside of territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the coast). Following changes to the visa in 2012, crew from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) were only to be employed on vessels operating ‘’wholly or mainly’’ outside territorial waters. This was on a temporary basis but never resolved and without legal clarity of what ‘’wholly or mainly’’ means, enforcement is impossible.

The ITF has been campaigning for over a decade to close this loophole and provide a fishing-specific skilled worker visa for any crew brought in to work on UK fishing vessels.

The ongoing abuse of visa loopholes by some UK fishing vessel owners is the key starting point of a system of exploitation of migrant fishers. Using seafarers’ transit visas makes an already invisible and vulnerable group harder to reach, and opens the door for systematic underpayment, labour abuse and human trafficking. Today, migrant fishers – mostly from the Philippines, Ghana and Indonesia – have no automatic legal entitlement to work in the UK or its territorial waters and are therefore confined to the vessel for the duration of their contract. They are exposed to precarious working conditions, particularly low pay (with examples of workers earning as little as £3.50 per hour) and a lack of labour market protections such as entitlement to National Minimum Wage.

Local employment with a well-established ‘hard work, fair rewards’ culture in fishing, where the profits from catches are shared between owners and crew, has mutated to a sector that now profits from the routine underpayment of migrant fishers. The ‘share of catch’ system does not apply to migrants on a seafarers’ transit visa, who are required to provide employment contracts with a single vessel. This contract stipulates their wage – usually around £1,000 a month for a 48 hours a week contract – but in reality they are working 16-20 hour days for a fraction of what UK crew on the same vessel are paid for the same work and far below UK national minimum wage.

Their unique immigration status presents a host of additional labour vulnerabilities, from the inability to swap vessels in cases of abuse due to their visa restrictions, through to grievance procedures that are nearly impossible to access at sea or in port. The intersection of traditional fishing practices (e.g. long working hours incentivised by a share of the catch – an incentive not available to contracted migrant crew) with a visa system that links their immigration status to single vessels, limits movement, making changing employers or raising complaints difficult. Seafarers’ transit visas have also been used illegally (e.g., working on a vessel not named in the contract) and in human trafficking.

In the UK, legislative changes (The Modern Slavery Act 2015 and The Immigration Act 2016) have attempted to protect migrant workers from exploitative labour practices, but the lack of separation between immigration and labour market enforcement means the Immigration Act serves mainly as migration control and criminalises those working in violation of immigration rules, increasing their vulnerability. Legislative protections fail to protect workers who submit to exploitative conditions or fail to report abuse, meaning migrant workers in hyper-precarious and hyper-dependent employment (such as on board fishing vessels where the migrant workers live, work and are bound to remain as a result of their contract and visa) are consequently more willing to suffer in silence and endure exploitative practices.

What reforms are needed?

To end this exploitation and ensure decent work in the UK fishing industry, the system needs to be reformed to meet the needs of workers and enable the enforcement of UK labour standards. This means providing either a tailored skilled worker visa[i] (including sufficient English language and fishing safety training) or work permits for fishing crew (paying the national minimum wage and providing access to medical care) where crew can change vessels or employer in cases of abuse. Either would improve work in fishing, enhance the rights at work for migrant fishers and ensure they are paid in line with the difficult work and long hours they work.

Read the ITF briefing here.

Read the University of Nottingham Rights Lab report here.

[i] Deckhands on fishing vessels of over 9m, with over 3 years’ experience are eligible for skilled worker visas although they have not been added to the UK’s Shortage Occupation List (SOL) – which specifies which jobs have insufficient resident workers. To qualify, their employer must offer a salary above £25,600, or a lower salary of £20,480 for a ‘new entrant’ (under age 26). Their pay must also be at least £10.10 per hour – three times what they are currently being paid.