Fishing vessel at sea under a dark sky pierced with slanting sunbeams Fishing vessel at sea under a dark sky pierced with slanting sunbeams

New Initiative launches in Scotland to fight the exploitation of workers at sea

A new two-year pilot programme will launch in Scotland, aiming to improve working conditions in the UK fishing industry. The programme will be delivered by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) in partnership with the the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and in consultation with International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the Fair Food Standards Council and Dr. Jess Sparks, Assistant Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University

The Worker-Driven social responsibility scheme is the first of its kind in Europe, and will involve collaboration between retailers, vessel owners, human rights experts and local community organisations.

Fishing is known to be a harsh and dangerous working environment, with a high risk of injury and death. Migrant fishers are often left exposed and vulnerable to the risks of labour abuse and exploitation while at sea aboard British vessels.

FLEX has reported on numerous scandals and accusations of mistreatment in recent years. Fishing vessel workers face multiple systemic issues such as pay inequality, excessive working ours, labour abuse, physical violence and exploitative immigration schemes.

Many migrant fishers are predominantly from the Philippines, Ghana and Indonesia. Their experiences working in UK Territorial Waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone were exposed in the research findings of Dr Sparks in 2022, and in an important piece of investigative journalism published by the Financial Times in 2023. (The Fishermen).

Both pieces highlighted the immigration loophole of the seafarer’s ‘transit-visa’. This visa is overly relied upon by the UK fishing industry as a means of hiring migrant workers at low-cost, but denies workers the protection of UK employment laws. Migrant fishers recruited into the UK on the transit-visa are not legally allowed to enter UK landed territory without special permission, and in practice are often unable to access basic services and necessities including medical care.

The press release for the scheme had this to say:

“Despite regulatory action and attempts to improve employment regulations for those working at sea in UK territorial waters, the reality has been the creation of a three-tier system where national and migrant fishers working within 12 nautical miles should be guaranteed basic employment rights, but many migrant fishers continue to be employed on vessels outside of the 12 nautical mile-limit on transit-visas, with no guaranteed UK minimum wage payment for the hours they work.”

Measure have taken to make the fishing industry more compliant with UK immigration law, but have been brought into effect with little-to-no engagement with workers or worker-representative organisations. Without this buy in from workers, it’s very hard to address the serious concerns of working conditions and worker exploitation.

Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) is a proven model for tackling labour abuse and exploitation in corporate supply chains. The model is designed to address the power imbalances that exist between workers and employers, as well as between buyers and suppliers, imbalances that drive many of the abuses found at the base of global supply chains today.

The programme are currently recruiting for an Outreach and Engagement Manager and two Outreach Workers for the project. Descriptions of the roles and responsibilities can be found online here.

For more information on this programme, read the full announcement on FLEX's Website.