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Migrant workers on Scots fishing boats exploited and abused

Migrant workers on Scottish fishing boats claim to have suffered physical and racial abuse, with some claiming they were forced to work 20 hour shifts while earning just £3.51 an hour.

A new report cites interviews with people from India, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Indonesia, and the Philippines, who have worked on UK fishing vessels. Some of the interviewees claimed they were exploited and earned as little as £400 per month.

More than a third – 35 per cent – of the workers, aka fishers, claimed they were subjected to physical violence on a regular basis. One in five said they did not have a signed copy of their contract.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab said their report – called Letting Exploitation off the hook – revealed evidence of “illegal practices” within the fishing industry as well as poor working conditions that have “seemingly been normalised”. 

Scottish fishing organisations said they “deplore and condemn bad practice” and people being badly treated, regardless of their nationality or immigration status. They also said the report is “not representative of the situation across the UK”.

“…the transit visa system which is being used to bring migrant workers into the UK but actually acts to put them at risk of labour exploitation and abuse.”

Chris Williams at the International Transport Workers’ Federation

The report cites 18 Scottish ports that migrant fishers interviewed for the survey had contact with. They included Lerwick, Oban, Peterhead, Scalloway, Troon, Ullapool and Scrabster.

Some interviewees related stories of extreme violence to researchers, with one man describing being beaten while the skipper’s son yelled racial slurs. Two people reported graphic and extreme sexually violent acts. 

Concerns about the treatment of migrant fishers in and around Peterhead and Fraserburgh, Scotland, were raised previously. A 2008 report from the International Transport Workers’ Federation highlighted alleged crimes against migrant workers, including exploitation, poor pay, abuse, intimidation and the use of violence

The University of Nottingham’s report makes similar claims. It also says transit visa loopholes are being used to exploit migrant fishers on fishing vessels. The UK relies on fishers from non-EU countries but people from these countries have no automatic legal entitlement to work in the UK. 

Fishing boat owners apply for transit visas on the basis that their vessel operates “wholly or mainly” outside UK territorial waters, defined as more than 12 nautical miles from shore.

Migrant fishers using those visas are required to work a “majority” of their time beyond territorial waters, and have no legal authority to “enter” the UK when returning to port. As a result, the report says, they are forced to live onboard the vessels for up to a year, despite accommodation on fishing boats usually being unsuitable for long-term stays.

There were 124 people interviewed for the study including crew from vessels registered in Scotland.

The Treatment of Migrant Workers

Dr Jess Sparks, author of the report who is based at the University Of Nottingham Rights Lab said: “Exploitative practices are widespread and endemic on vessels. Long hours for poor wages are endemic. It is well known that you can pay migrants less.”

The Seafarers’ Charity’s chief executive officer Catherine Spencer said she was “shocked and saddened” at the treatment of migrant fishing crew revealed in the research.

Calling on the fishing industry to act swiftly to “stamp out the abhorrent treatment” of workers, she added: “I am sure that many people, including owners of fishing businesses and other stakeholders, will share our concerns about the treatment of migrant workers in the UK fishing industry. We stand ready to play our role in supporting improvements.”

Julie Carlton, head of seafarer safety and health at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said:We will continue to support those working across the fishing sector, making sure they are treated fairly and taking action when we know they are not. The MCA continues to work with vessel owners to make sure they meet the required international standards and cooperate closely with other government agencies who enforce other aspects of living and working conditions for seafarers.”

Chris Williams at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a trade union representing 20 million people across the world working in transport and maritime sectors, said: “The evidence in this research has increased our concerns about the lack of reporting by victims of exploitation and issues with the transit visa system which is being used to bring migrant workers into the UK but actually acts to put them at risk of labour exploitation and abuse.”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, speaking on behalf of The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance (FWA), said: “Whilst we are still studying the detail of the report published today by the University of Nottingham, at first reading it contains much that fishing industry representatives do not recognise, and is not representative of the situation across the UK as the report itself states.”

She continued: “There is much that industry is doing to continually improve working conditions, including agreeing recently to work with a major UK retailer to help prepare non-UK crew for working in the UK fishing industry. We will continue to drive forward to ensure that all our workers are respected and well cared for.”

Mike Park OBE, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, suggested that the authors of the report should give their evidence to the “appropriate authorities” as some of the situations cited are “either illegal or border on illegality”.

Park added it was important to note that study states that a generalisation across the industry should not be made, adding there are “elements of the report that simply do not align with our own knowledge and understanding of the  situation”. 

He continued: “As an industry we have done much to make change where change is required, and to a vessel we now embrace our commitments to the set of international standards and the detailed contracts in support of that.”

Photo Credit: iStock/Olga Seredenko

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