Exploitation And Trafficking In U.K. Fishing
The U.K. has strict regulations to prevent exploitation, human rights violations, and slavery in its fishing industry. Unfortunately, many fishers continue to go unprotected. Fishers from outside of Europe are particularly vulnerable and make up an increasing percentage of fishers in the United Kingdom. These include people from the Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India.
Researchers surveyed people who were over the age of eighteen and were either actively fishing in U.K. waters or had fished in U.K. waters in the past twelve months, including people who weren’t currently in the United Kingdom. Researchers collected 108 surveys and supplemented their findings with in-depth interviews of sixteen migrant fishers. The interviewees were identified by organizations working with migrant fishers, so they may have been biased towards fishers with negative experiences.
For non-European fishers, the debt burdens associated with securing a fishing job in the U.K. are high. Half of non-European fishers said that they would be unlikely to leave an exploitative work situation because of concern about either their debt or the cost of returning home. 84% of migrants had to pay a placement fee, even though placement fees are supposed to be paid by the vessel owner according to U.K. law. 83% of those who paid a placement fee incurred debt to pay it.
Other migrants incur debt paying for travel, food, and the pre-departure medical exam. More than a quarter of interactions between a non-European fisher and a crewing agency were with illegal entities. Non-European fishers prefer illegal crewing agencies because they often cost less and have more flexible repayment plans. However, using an illegal crewing agency leaves these fishers vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking.
All fishers on U.K. vessels are required to have a contract, known as a fishermen’s work agreement. Only 29% of British fishers report having a fishermen’s work agreement. While migrant fishers are more likely to have a fishermen’s work agreement, their work agreements are often with the crewing agency rather than vessel owners. If the work agreement isn’t legal, the crewing agency rather than the vessel owner will be at fault, which makes it more difficult for fishers to seek out legal remedies. Half of migrant fishers either didn’t have or didn’t know whether they had sickness, injury, and death benefits, which are legally required. 16% of migrant fishers reported that the work agreement wasn’t in their preferred language, which would make the work agreement harder to understand. 20% of migrant fishers didn’t have a signed copy of their work agreement, even though the law requires that they have a copy. Without a copy, fishers may have difficulty enforcing their contracts and may be deported because they don’t have evidence they’re in the country legally.
Migrant fishers often can’t make informed decisions about their work, because their contracts are inaccurate. Many of these people are deceived during recruitment about the quality of accommodations on their vessel. Half of migrant fishers said that their contract didn’t describe their working hours accurately. An additional 12% said that working hours weren’t described in the contract at all.
About 15% of employed migrant fishers worked for longer than their original contract stated. Although vessel owners often claimed they couldn’t find a replacement crew during COVID-19, the research suggests that it was simply cheaper for owners to keep the crews they already had in place. When working beyond their contracted date, many workers incurred additional debt and feared they would not be covered by their original work agreement.
95% of migrant fishers studied, including all non-European fishers, work on a transit visa. This allows a sailor to briefly enter the U.K. while they’re at port, although they have to sleep on the ship. Under a transit visa, a fisher has to work “a majority” of their time outside U.K. waters, a provision that is unclear and difficult to enforce. 65% of non-European migrant fishers said that they would have difficulty changing employers because of their immigration status. Furthermore, a transit visa is tied to a specific vessel, and a migrant worker may be unable to switch vessels without losing their visa. Some migrant workers work on different vessels than the ones on their visa, putting them at risk of deportation.
While migrants on a transit visa are allowed to go on shore leave, the skipper or vessel owner must apply for permission. Therefore, skippers and vessel owners can deny the migrant the ability to leave the ship. Furthermore, 15% of fishers reported that the vessel owner had their passport and contract, both of which are necessary to legally leave a vessel. Some skippers require migrants to disclose where they’re going, whom they’re meeting, and when they will return, and will deny them permission to leave if the skipper disapproves. Almost half of migrant fishers reported that they didn’t disembark the vessel because of immigration concerns.
Fishers tend to be overworked. 60% of fishers reported working sixteen hours a day, and more than a third reported working more than twenty hours a day. Fewer than five percent of fishers received their legally mandated rest hours. When in port, many migrant fishers must do additional work to “pay for” their accommodations. Skippers and vessel owners often punish migrant fishers who don’t do this work and don’t let them leave the ship —a potential sign of forced labor. Some non-European fishers are required to do unpaid domestic work at the homes of skippers and vessel owners. Because migrants don’t get adequate rest, injury rates are high. 25% of migrant fishers were injured on their most recent work experience. The injuries are compounded because fishers on a transit visa aren’t legally allowed to seek medical care unless it’s an emergency.
Migrant fishers make an average of £3.51 an hour, less than a third of the national minimum wage. This estimate is likely an underestimate. It doesn’t account for hours worked in port and uses a low estimate of hours worked. The authors found that a fisher’s nationality was associated with their salary, and there tends to be a hierarchy in payments: Fishers from the Philippines tend to be paid the highest wages, followed by those from Ghana, those from Sri Lanka and India (with generally similar salaries), and finally fishers from Indonesia.
In addition to being overworked, fishers often have poor working conditions. 80% of respondents reported poor or terrible quality or quantity of water. One respondent shared that he had to get his drinking water from condensation in the refrigeration system. Fewer than 30% of respondents had never been threatened with loss of salary; worsening of working conditions; withdrawal of on-board privileges; insults or psychological trauma; reporting to authorities; or physical or sexual violence. More than one in three fishers had experienced physical or sexual violence at work. About three-quarters of migrant fishers experienced racial discrimination from their skippers.
Finally, migrant fishers may endure forced labor. In general, it is difficult to figure out if people are being forced to work. To classify a migrant as being possibly forced into labor, researchers required either an indicator of involuntary work and abuse of the migrant’s vulnerabilities or an indicator of threat or menace of penalty if the migrant leaves, other than abusive living conditions. To classify a migrant as probably being forced into labor, researchers required both. Based on this criteria, 19% of migrants were probable victims of forced labor, while 48% of migrants were possible victims of forced labor.
Although exploitation is common in the fishing industry, fishers, especially migrant laborers, have few options to defend themselves. Fishers rarely report mistreatment to authorities. 65% of fishers fear being blacklisted if they report illegal working conditions, and migrant fishers are particularly afraid of blacklisting. Many migrant fishers can’t report mistreatment because they’re on a transit visa and can’t leave their vessel.
Because of the human rights abuses rife within this industry, it’s clear that this issue is both urgent and critical for animal advocates to take a stand on. Namely, the U.K. labor laws must be strengthened to close legal loopholes and protect marginalized fishers from ongoing abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, advocates should hold the U.K. government accountable for meeting the expectations of national and international anti-slavery legislation. Finally, consumers should be made aware of the harms going on within this industry, and why their seafood purchases may be fueling illegal practices.