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Migrant labour exploitation, abuse remain rife in UK fishing industry – FT exposé

news Press Release 16 Jun 2023

The Financial Times is reporting on the latest shocking story emanating from the UK fishing industry, affecting crew from the Philippines who were working on UK-flagged fishing vessels operating in Northern Ireland.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF) UK campaign lead for fishers’ rights, Chris Williams, said:

“This shocking exposé provides just the latest example of how the broken transit visa loophole was the basis for exploitation and vulnerability that has come to shape the experience of so many migrant crew in the UK. Once again these stories demonstrate that UK companies continue to exploit an invisible, vulnerable workforce, paying them less than UK minimum wage to stock the country's beloved fish and chip shops and supermarkets."

Williams said the UK fishing sector had become dependent on migrant labour, and from 2006 had exploited an immigration loophole utilising a visa intended for seafarers transiting the UK en route to overseas-bound ships.

The ITF exposed the loophole as a ‘one way ticket to exploitation’, alongside maritime charities and academics, with cases of racial and physical abuse being levelled at fishers who were intimidated with the risk of deportation, should they speak out against their gross mistreatment.

In April this year, the UK Home Office agreed with the ITF position that employing migrant crew to fish in UK waters on transit visas is (and has always been) illegal. Instead, fishing boat owners should become sponsors just like any other employer, and employ migrant crew on skilled worker visas – paying UK wages and adhering to UK labour laws.

‘The fishermen’

The four Filipinos, interviewed at length over many months by the Financial Times, provided  accounts which make their vulnerability very real. Several were injured and, while some were initially looked after well, others were immediately mistreated, and all of them ended up being sent home with little or no compensation to date.

The story also highlights how, in some areas, companies were consistently breaking the rules by using migrant crew to fish in UK waters without the necessary work permit (skilled worker visa). This situation has become normalised despite being illegal. As one crew’s testimony shows, they spent the majority of time during the year fishing inside UK territorial waters.

This issue has been caused by vague and unenforceable Government policy which was taken advantage of by fishing vessel owners who did not want to pay fishers a share of the catch or the UK national minimum wage.

“Today’s piece shines a light on the widespread injustice resulting from a legal loophole and unscrupulous employers engaged in the race to the bottom,” said Williams. “Crew live on these fishing vessels for hundreds of days on end because of their lack of immigration status. Their working reality is a clear example of discrimination, highlighting this issue of unequal pay for equal work. They are paid much less than UK and EU nationals who are earn according to a share of the catch.”

Fisheries expert and lead for the ITF fishers' rights campaign in the UK, Chris Williams | (Credit: ITF)

While the Home Office announcement in April has helped one set of crew by ensuring their employment rights and fair pay, it has created a three-tier system from a two-tier system. Now there are national crew on a share, skilled workers in UK territorial waters and transit visa crew working offshore. They have different terms and conditions, with differing immigration status, but all are doing the same work for UK companies on UK-flagged vessels.

The amount of work on board, during navigation and in port means that the UK territorial waters argument is misleading in terms of describing what constitutes UK employment.

UK must clean up its act and put crew first

To put an end to the vulnerability and exploitation experienced by migrant fishers, the ITF was demanding the government and employers supported collective agreements for the workers, to ensure they can defend their rights and ensure they are getting paid at least the UK national minimum wage for the hours worked.

“For the UK fishing industry to reach a point where these shocking news stories stop, there needs to be a widespread acceptance that the only way to uphold people’s rights at work is through the right to organise and collectively bargain with their employers,” said Williams.

“It’s time this industry was cleaned up,” he said.


Image credit: The Financial Times