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Nusrat Ghani: We must root out exploitation in the UK fishing industry and afford foreign fishermen the protections they deserve

5 min read

Albert (pseudonym) is a fisherman from Ghana. Last year, he left his family and friends to work in the United Kingdom fishing industry.

Delighted at the prospect of regular, gainful employment, Albert arrived in the UK and joined his fishing vessel. He understood that this vessel would be his place of work and his home for the next nine months.

As a fisherman, Albert also appreciated that life on board a fishing vessel can be tough. Hours are long and irregular, and conditions can be dangerous. However, upon joining the vessel it soon became apparent to Albert that all was not well. Conditions on board were squalid. The food provided was inadequate. The skipper was both verbally and physically abusive to Albert and the other foreign fishermen. Twenty-hour days were commonplace. Sleep and adequate rest were denied. When Albert and his fellow crew members made mistakes, which were inevitable when Albert was so tired and hungry, the skipper flew at him in a rage. Albert was punched and kicked. Worse still, the skipper abused drugs and alcohol, even whilst at sea. When he was drunk or high, his behaviour towards Albert became even more violent and sadistic.

Albert wanted to complain but was advised by the skipper, in no uncertain terms, that - contrary to what Albert was told when he left Ghana – he is an illegal worker, that he should not leave the vessel without his permission and that, if he does complain, no one will listen to him, and he will never work as a fisherman in the UK again. 

Prevent the use of transit visas to bring foreign nationals in to work in the UK fishing industry

Thankfully, the distressing scenario I have shared is not commonplace in the UK fishing industry. However, it does happen. We know this because fishermen, like Albert, who have been the subject of abuse, have sought help from welfare charities like Stella Maris. The seafarers’ charity, of which I am a trustee, recently supported new research, conducted by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, which revealed evidence of poor treatment and lack of decent working conditions for some migrant workers on UK fishing vessels. The research report, “Letting exploitation off the hook? Evidencing labour abuses in UK fishing”, sought out views of fishing crew and heard directly from them about what it is really like to work within the UK fishing industry.  

The research revealed that 35 per cent of fishing crew in the study reported suffering regular physical violence. However, 65 per cent stated they would never report a grievance out of fear of being blacklisted from future employment opportunities. Nineteen per cent of those included in the research would qualify as probable cases of forced labour when applying the International Labour Organization’s guidelines on the Forced Labour Convention. One hundred per cent of non-EEA crew within the research study experienced immigration related vulnerabilities caused by using a transit visa which places them at increased risk of labour exploitation.  

Transit visas are designed for seafarers transiting through the UK to reach their departing ship. They are unsuitable for fishermen based in the UK as lacking many basic labour protections in respect of pay and working hours. I join the seafarers’ charity, Stella Maris, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and many others in the UK fishing industry in urging the government to act to prevent the use of transit visas to bring foreign nationals in to work in the UK fishing industry. Instead, government should act to ensure that migrant workers in fishing are afforded the social and labour protections available to others working within the UK.

Transit visas also trigger a further injustice for those fishermen, like Albert, who have been subjected to appalling abuse and may be possible victims of modern slavery. When they seek protection and support from the police and statutory authorities, they enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) so that their allegations and circumstances can be assessed, appropriate support provided, and a decision made as to whether they should be granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK whilst an investigation takes place.  Due to the sheer number of suspected cases of modern slavery in the UK, the average wait time in the NRM is approximately two years.  

Having come to the UK to work, foreign fishermen in the NRM, such as Albert, expect to be able to work during the period when their cases are assessed. After all, this is why they came to the UK in the first place! However, by a cruel twist of fate, as their transit visa is not a UK work visa, they are not entitled to work in the UK. Had they been employed as a fruit picker on a domestic visa, for example, and been subjected to slavery, they would be entitled to work whilst in the NRM. 

I urge the Home Office to remedy this injustice with immediate effect. Denying foreign fishermen the right to work in the UK whilst in the NRM means that they are stripped of their dignity twice, once by the skipper who exploited them, and secondly by our immigration system. We can do better for fishermen like Albert.


Nusrat Ghani is the Conservative MP for Wealden.

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