Global problem of modern slavery highlighted in fishing industry

13 January 2022

The challenges of enforcing international legislation to protect the rights of fishing crew have been highlighted by global maritime charity Stella Maris.

Stella Maris said for the past year it has been involved in an ongoing case in which seafarer officers were recruited from abroad by overseas agents to come and work on a fishing vessel based in Scotland.

The case was highlighted in the charity's webinar on Modern Slavery and Exploitation in the Fishing Industry late last year, which looked at exploitation of fishing crews against the powers of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)'s Convention 188 – known as the bill of rights for fishers.

In early November 2020, the fishing boat in the case was working in Shoreham, Sussex, and was about to sail back to Scotland. The crew contacted Stella Maris saying they feared for their safety and lives and that they wanted desperately to get off the vessel.

Stella Maris said it understood that:

  • the crew were forced to work 20 hours a day, and then eat, sleep, shower, and contact family in the remaining four hours
  • they did not receive wages into their bank accounts
  • the boat was not safe, and not properly maintained
  • the crew were subjected to mental, emotional, racial, and physical abuse, and exposed to dangerous and illegal working practices
  • they were denied adequate food and drinking water, and one of the men was even denied medical attention after suffering serious injury

Stella Maris' senior area port chaplain for the south of England and Wales Deacon Nick O'Neill provided pastoral support for the distressed crew, and also contacted the police, the harbour master and modern slavery hotline.

Deacon Nick O'Neill

After further interviews, the fishing crew were placed in the care of Stella Maris, and the deacon and his team of ship visitors helped find them a hotel, and supplied clothing, food, and cash for essential short-term needs. The charity also arranged legal representation and emergency dental care.

The seafarers have now been placed in the national referral mechanism, awaiting a decision from the Home Office on their future.

Mr O'Neill explained his part in the case during the modern slavery webinar. He described how one of the crew, a Ghanaian third engineer and officer of the watch, who normally worked on tankers, was 'not phased' to be working on a fishing trawler in the UK. 'Due to the UK's good reputation for safety in the maritime world, he thought that he would be as safe as possible.' 

Stella Maris chief executive officer Martin Foley said that the real challenge in the maritime sector is one of enforcing international legislation that exists to protect the rights of fishers.

'The main bill of rights for fishers is the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) [Work in Fishing] Convention 188, and unfortunately very few states have ratified that convention, and even fewer states are actively enforcing it.'

That Convention includes the Fisherman's Working Agreement (FWA) which gives standards of welfare at work. This includes place of work, wages, length of employment, healthcare, repatriation, and the fact that repatriation should be paid by the fishing vessel owner.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) UK Fisheries Section lead Chris Williams commented: 'This is sadly not an isolated case in the UK. Over the past decade we have had a multitude of shocking stories in newspapers and fisheries cases from ports in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland on UK-flagged vessels documenting the abuse of fishers rights.

'The ITF will publish information as and when active cases have been resolved and calls on the UK government and agencies to implement the work in fishing convention (ILO c.188) to ensure that these abuses are dealt with and prevented in the future.'