An “invisible” underclass of up to 1,000 migrant fishermen are working on Scottish boats with some not even being paid due to a legal loophole, it can be revealed.
The men from countries including Ghana, Indonesia and the Philippines have found jobs on Scots vessels, according to a fisheries expert. Many have been exploited and abused while some have been unpaid for months of gruelling work on boats.
The loophole – involving the misuse of short-term seafarers’ transit visas by some employers to bypass strict migration law – means they are unable to complain and struggle to get thousands of pounds they are owed due to their immigration status.
Chris Williams, of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, estimated around 1,000 migrants were now working on Scottish ships as UK legislation enabled conditions for forced labour and modern slavery.
He said: “The hostile environment is a cruel framework for discrimination, which is also putting an already vulnerable group of people into a worse situation. The use of transit visas to employ fishing crews from the Philippines, Ghana, Sri Lanka in the UK fishing industry is a loophole that needs to be closed – but without displacing the problem offshore.
“Fishing is a dangerous and skilled profession and we should be attracting crews with the most relevant experience so they can fulfil their roles safely. Skilled worker visas are part of the solution but they need to be tailored to the specific requirements of working in fishing.
“The current migrant workforce in fishing are invisible but they are here doing the work and make up the majority of crew around the UK.
“Their lack of immigration status means they have to live on fishing vessels in UK ports and are dependent on their employer for everything – this sets a scene that is rife for labour exploitation and coercion due to immigration fears.”
Migrant crew members fear going onshore as they come here on the seafarers’ transit visas which were intended to allow seafarers from other countries to board ships in UK ports before departing into international waters. The use of transit visas – which are “endemic” across Scotland – makes crew members “invisible” and dependent on skippers for food, accommodation and legal status, according to Williams.
He added: “These people are working in the UK and need to be treated as such, with all the protections and responsibilities that entails, whether it’s minimum wage or labour protections. The current requirements for a stated monthly contract on their transit visa also creates a two-tier system with a migrant underclass being paid a quarter of what a UK deckhand would be paid.
“It’s time for UK regulators to take responsibility for shaping a sustainable and equitable solution.”
Academics have backed the bid to strengthen the rights of migrant crew. Dr Carole White, of the University of East Anglia, has studied their working conditions. Her work showed that the use of short-term contracts also makes crews reluctant to complain for fear of being labelled a trouble maker.
She said: “Changes should be made to address both the causes of vulnerability and the inability to recognise and address these forms of coercion and control. This would include ending the use of transit visas. Crews should move to an appropriate skilled worker visa. There is a need to draw up clear guidelines that distinguish what constitutes acceptable and abusive behaviour. This should be mutually created with migrant crew, accommodate the realities of fishing practice, and recognise the need to limit to skipper’s authority.”
The Home Office said: “Non-UK fishermen should have the correct permission before starting work in the UK and transit visas should not be exploited by fishing mainly in UK territorial waters.”
Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which promotes the collective interests of Scotland’s fishermen’s associations, said: “Recent academic reports contain much that fishing industry representatives do not recognise, and are not representative of the situation across the UK, as some of these reports themselves acknowledge.”
“As industry representatives, we deplore and condemn bad practice and crew members being badly or unfairly treated, regardless of their nationality or immigration status.”
I endured bullying, intimidation, abuse and long, long hours
For fear of losing the chance of future work, Samuel does not want his real name published or even the country where he travelled from to work on a Scots fishing boat.
He has returned there for now but is still fighting to get paid for his time on the vessel.
The 39-year-old does not want the details of where he worked and what he did published, but said: “It was rather unfortunate for me not to have a good skipper to work with. There are a lot of good skippers out there but it’s unfortunate that the skipper I worked with didn’t value people’s efforts.
“The biggest problems I encountered were bullying, intimidation, abuse and working for far longer than we should.
“I think there’s no room for such actions in the fishing industry. I felt very bad physically and emotionally and that really affected my work. Sometimes I did not feel safe. I had to just put myself into the work and try to not get myself injured.
“The good news is that the issues for migrant crew members can be fixed by the authorities such as the Home Office.
“They need to issue or implement proper documentation for the migrant crews. The skilled worker visa is very good.
“The transit visa is causing problems which ends up by the owners or skippers terminating or breaching crew members’ contracts.
“It is sad because I never had a chance to really experience Scotland due to the nature of the work I was doing.
“The boat didn’t have enough time in the port or harbour. Most of my time on the boat was spent working out on the sea.”
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