The U.K. has launched a two-year program to be run by labor rights groups in partnership with the Seafood Ethics Action Alliance (SEA Alliance) to improve working conditions for migrant crews on British fishing boats according to a recent Financial Times article. The scheme is in response to multiple incidences of abuse of migrant fishing crews and cases of forced labor uncovered recently across the seafood fishing sector.
Cracking down on slavery at sea
The two-year pilot program is the first of its kind in Europe and sets new minimum standards for pay and working conditions developed by the workers. Workers will oversee the establishment, monitoring, and enforcement of their employment rights to help ensure needed changes are made.
Chris Williams, fisheries expert from one of the groups launching the program said:
“The project gives (migrant fishers) a chance for greater protection and improved conditions at work, as well as the ability to shape their own working conditions.”
This scheme is built on legally binding agreements between employers and buyers, unlike previous voluntary corporate social responsibility schemes, and includes auditing by an independent council and incentives for adherence. SEA Alliance, a consumer group whose members represent 95 percent of the U.K. seafood market and include big names like Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, and Whitby Seafoods will be working together with labor rights groups to enact the new program.
Tying up a labor exploitation loophole
In addition, the scheme will try to address an immigration “loophole” that has thus far denied those who work in international waters the protection of U.K. employment law. This loophole has allowed employers to escape U.K. employment protections for migrant workers and helped lay the groundwork for rampant abuse reported.
At the center of this loophole is the “transit visa”, intended for use by those entering and passing through the U.K. on their way to another location, like merchant seafarers. According to labor experts, more than 1,299 overseas crew on British boats are employed using this visa, which some human rights lawyers argue has facilitated modern slavery. Recent attempts by the U.K. government to address misuse of this visa have been ineffective as many boats fish beyond 12 nautical miles making them outside the territorial limit and exempt from U.K. laws.
The Financial Times states:
“The pilot program promises to fill the gaps in legislation for this group of workers by guaranteeing minimum standards over pay, rest hours and grievance procedures.”
A contact close to the discussions shared that the agreements are expected to be in place by the second quarter of this year. The largest fish producer group in Europe, Scottish White Fish Producers Association, has partnered with the scheme to run the program out of two ports in northeast Scotland.
Forced labor in seafood doesn’t end at the port
Sadly, the trail of abuse on the high seas doesn’t end with the fishing crews, it also leads to seafood processing facilities in China, which supply global brands. Most alarmingly, it has been found that Uyghur workers were forcibly relocated to seafood factories in Shandong, a major seafood processing hub on China’s eastern coast. These factories supply hundreds of restaurants, supermarkets, and food-service providers across the United States and Europe. This worker-led pilot program launched in the U.K. is a first step towards eliminating slavery at sea, but bringing change to the whole seafood industry will require the collective efforts of governments, consumers, and organizations alike. Join Freedom United and stand with us against Uyghur forced labor to help end modern slavery, wherever it is found.