Loopholes in UK law are allowing vessel owners to violate migrant fishers’ human rights

May 16, 2022

Migrant fishers are being subjected to systematic labour exploitation because the UK Government refuses to clarify and close loopholes in its immigration rules, a new report from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has said.

Fishing boat owners are using the totally unsuitable Seafarers’ Transit Visa to bring migrant workers from outside Europe to the UK. This practice is allowing some owners to exploit fishers’ fears over their immigration status to make them work long hours on as little as £3 an hour, significantly lower than the national minimum wage.

Workers from the Philippines, Ghana and Indonesia are effectively trapped on UK fishing boats for up to a year and are being told they will be deported or black-listed if they try to leave, even if they go ashore for a brief stay.

“We want the UK to stop using this transit visa for migrant fishers and switch to something that will give people better protection, like a skilled worker visa,” said Chris Williams, a fisheries expert and socio-economic specialist from the ITF Fisheries Section, who authored the report. “The use of transit visas for migrant fishers working on UK vessels is resulting in human and labour rights violations. The ITF receives reports from migrant fishers suggesting that there is systematic labour exploitation.”

How transit visas are misused

Seafarers’ Transit Visas are intended to allow seafarers to join ships leaving UK ports for international waters (a container ship going to China, for example). Crew from abroad can stay in the UK for up to seven days while they wait for their ship to leave. International waters begin 22.2km (12 nautical miles) off the UK’s shoreline.

Fishing boat owners are being allowed to misuse this transit visa in employing migrants. They argue that by taking boats out into international waters they fulfil the visa’s requirements. However, the visa is not appropriate because the vessels soon come back to a UK port to land their catches.

A loophole in UK immigration rules means that fishers do not technically re-enter the UK until they get off the boat. In a cruel game, the law allows them to enter the UK but keeps them holed-up on boats for as long as a year. The accommodation on fishing boats is not usually suitable for long-term stays.

“For any fishers living onboard a vessel, there’s a heavy reliance on the vessel owner or its skipper for everything, from their working and living conditions, to access to food and other essentials,” said Williams. “We have grave concerns that some fishing vessel owners continue to exploit the vulnerable position these workers are in with unfair, and even illegal practices, at work”.

“We want the UK to close this loophole in the law. Currently it says a transit visa can be used if a ship operates ‘wholly or mainly’ in international waters without specifying what that means. We think the law should be changed to make things more specific – we want a ship to spend 70% of its time in international waters before a transit visa can be used,” said Williams.

Transit visas enable abuse

It’s quick and cheap for owners to use the transit visa system, but uncertainty about the rules has put too much power into their hands. Some are using that power to keep their costs down, treating migrants as less-than workers, paying them a fraction of what they pay UK or EEA fishers on the same boat.

Migrant fishers are typically paid £1000 a month but often employers make them work seven days a week and often 16 hours a day. This equates to a rate of pay of only about £3 an hour, less than a quarter of the UK minimum wage. A UK or EEA fisher with the same skills on the same boat will be entitled to a share of what the catch earns after costs. This is typically works out at much more than the minimum wage.

In 2014, the UK Human Trafficking Centre revealed 74 potential victims of exploitation in the Scottish fishing sector. Scallop fisheries were identified as being at particularly high risk. In 2018, every case of modern slavery in the UK fishing industry related to victims who arrived on seafarers’ transit visas.

“The UK is a rich G7 country, signed up to the UN International Labour Organization’s Convention C188 that is supposed to protect fishers’ rights,” said Williams. “Incoherence between fisheries and immigration policies are made worse through departments working in silos under differing legislation. A lack of legal clarity on working inside or outside UK territorial waters, as well as on shore leave, needs to be urgently resolved.”

“Transit visas are the starting point for a cycle of abuse that should never have been tolerated. Changing the system to close the loophole will be a major step in protecting worker rights. That change is urgently needed.”

The report, A one way ticket to labour exploitation: how transit visa loopholes are being used to exploit migrant fishers on UK fishing vessels, is available for download here.

Media contact: media@itf.org.uk