Ports are important sites in the fight against fisher labour exploitation

People | Communities

By Chiara Gentile, Freelance Writer

Published October 31st, 2022

Discussions around modern slavery tend to spotlight countries outside of the UK and Europe. However, labour exploitation is occurring right here on our ports—and the results are on our plates.

Around 24 million people around the world are currently trapped in forced labour, with 11% consisting of the agriculture and fishing industry. The numbers of just how many cases of modern slavery there are in the fishing industry are unreliable, especially as estimates only account for cases that can be included in the definition of modern slavery, which ignores the spectrum of forced labour and exploitative labour conditions.

Fisherman sorting through catch. | NOAA / Unsplash

The term modern slavery (as opposed to human trafficking which could definitionally encompass modern slavery) refers to many forms of illegal exploitation of people, from widespread violations of labour laws and regulations to slavery in the form of debt bondage, servitude and forced labour.

The legislation that safeguards the labour of fishers is The International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (ILO 188). It applies to all fishers working on fishing vessels, entitling them to its written terms and conditions, as well as providing them with minimum standards regarding welfare and working conditions.

However, the ILO defines decent work as the absence of extreme work conditions, allowing for exploitative work conditions to occur that do not reach the threshold of violating the law. Understanding these definitions in action is crucial as they risk normalising labour abuses that are not considered extreme enough to be deemed slavery.

‘[...] they risk normalising labour abuses that are not considered extreme enough to be deemed slavery.’

Due to fishers working under various jurisdictions depending on where the vessel operates and what port it docks at, there is a lack of legal coordination between these actors, which can result in policy gaps where exploitation arises.

This is evidenced in the treatment of migrant workers on vessels. Despite fishing crew being eligible for skilled-worker visas, non-European (non-EEA) migrants enter the UK through the use of transit visas. This actively exploits the lack of legal clarity in the UK immigration law.

Migrant fishers working on transit visas—meaning they cannot enter the UK—are thus forced to live on boats and cannot step off the vessel. There is a conflict of interest between immigration policies and the UK Modern Slavery Act, which measures how modern slavery and human trafficking should be dealt with in the UK.

UK fishing vessel. | Michael Hutton / Unsplash

Such migration laws create and enable the conditions for workplace exploitation and abuse. One in five migrant fishers does not receive a signed copy of their contract, a breach under the ILO 188. This means that should a worker leave the vessel to seek aid, they have no formal paperwork to refer to and risk deportation at their own cost, making them unable to return to the UK to work for a minimum of five years.

Additionally, 18% of migrant fishers have reported being forced to work on a vessel not named in their contract. As the transit visa scheme ties them to one vessel, when migrant fishers are forced to work on vessels outside of their contractual agreement, they are in violation of immigration laws through no fault of their own.

A report by the University of Nottingham last year found that, on average, migrant fishers on UK vessels were working a minimum of 16-hour work days, with some days reaching up to 20 hours. Those surveys further explained that they are required to clean and repair the vessel, take the gear off the vessel, or mend nets on their days off in port.

‘Migrant fishers on UK vessels were working a minimum of 16 hour work days, with some days reaching up to 20 hours.’

Furthermore, 65% of those surveyed said their immigrant status would prevent them from changing jobs if treated unfairly. Forty-six percent of migrant fishers said that once they started working on a vessel, they have not disembarked due to threats made by the skipper or vessel owner with regard to their immigration status.

This is not to mention that over 80% of respondents, both migrant and domestic, reported poor or terrible quality and quantity of water on board, even collecting condensation from fridges used to store drinking water. To add to this, fishers are experiencing abuse by vessel owners and employers, ranging from threats and insults to physical and sexual violence.

Domestic fishers may also make more per hour than migrant fishers, whose average salary is a mere £3.51 an hour. The crucial fact remains that not only do these exploitative work conditions exist, they are not illegal.

Shoreham harbour. | Gary J. Stearman / Unsplash

In light of this, mobilisation around ports has been crucial for aiding fishers who are trapped in these inhumane conditions. Stella Maris is one such charity that makes more than 70,000 ship visits each year, providing support for seafarers and fishers through practical help in a crisis, to free Wi-Fi onboard in order to make calls home.

In the last decade, there has been growing concern about UK-flagged vessels engaging in fisher abuse. In November 2020, a vessel in Shoreham Port, Sussex made the news when its crew contacted Stella Maris in fear for their lives, unable to leave the vessel.

When focussing on fisher exploitation in UK ports, one must take into consideration that they are largely privatised. This is due to a gradual transfer of port assets to the private sector since the 1980s. Thus, private ports are responsible to shareholders, trusts, stakeholders and local authority communities, and are run independently of systemic government support.

‘There has been growing concern of UK-flagged vessels engaging in fisher abuse.’

Commercial fishing is integrated in a world system designed to maximise profit extraction, therefore it is no surprise that there is also a relationship between overfishing and fisher labour exploitation. Overfishing puts pressure on stocks and vessels to maintain yields, which can result in staying out at sea for longer, as well as maximising cheap labour.

These intersections between migrations laws, commercial fishing, the privatisation of ports and inhibited regulations necessitate a closer look at ports and their labour practices. Labour exploitation is seen as a distant issue, but the evidence remains closer to home on British ports.

Featured Image: Meritt Thomas | Unsplash

Global Slavery Index (2022) ‘Fishing: Global Slavery Index.’ Global Slavery Index. Available at: https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/importing-risk/fishing/ [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

McVeigh K. (2022) ‘Migrant workers ‘exploited and beaten’ on UK fishing boats.’ The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global/2022/may/17/migrant-workers-exploited-and-beaten-on-uk-fishing-boats [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

Nautilus International (2022) ‘Global problem of modern slavery highlighted in fishing industry.’ Nautilus International. Available at: https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/global-problem-of-modern-slavery-highlighted-in-fishing-industry/ [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

Phelan K., Gardner A., Selig E. and Sparks J. (2022) Towards a model of port-based resilience against fisher labour exploitation. Marine Policy. Volume 142, page 105108.

Sparks J. (2022) ‘Letting exploitation off the hook? Evidencing labour abuses in UK fishing.’ University of Nottingham. Available at: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/Research/Beacons-of-Excellence/Rights-Lab/resources/reports-and-briefings/2022/May/Letting-exploitation-off-the-hook.pdf [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

Stella Maris (2022) ‘Combating Modern Slavery in the Fishing Industry.’ Stella Maris. Available at: https://www.stellamaris.org.uk/modernslavery/ [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

UK Government (2022) ‘ILO Work in Fishing Convention.’ UK Government. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/ilo-work-in-fishing-convention [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

UK Government (2022) ‘Modern Slavery Act 2015.’ UK Government. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/30/contents/enacted [Accessed October 6th, 2022]

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