A One Way Ticket to Labour Exploitation

A One Way Ticket to Labour Exploitation

A One Way Ticket to Labour Exploitation


Transit visas are the starting point for the labour abuse of migrant workers working in the UK fishing industry. This type of visa is intended to allow seafarers from other countries to board ships in UK ports that then depart into international waters.

Fishing vessel owners have been allowed to misuse this visa in employing migrants, taking them fishing into international waters (more than 12 nautical miles from the UK coast) to fulfil the transit requirements but then bringing them back to a UK port to live on board the fishing vessel. They argue they are allowed to do this under current rules but, at best, it is a loophole that needs closing.

Its quick and easy for the owners to use this system, but the fishers are not really in transit. The visa allows them to work in the UK for up to a year, during which time they are usually confined to living and working aboard a fishing vessel as it goes in and out of UK ports between fishing trips.

Fishing vessel owners can threaten migrants with being thrown off their boats. At that point, the transit visa no longer applies, and the UK authorities would treat them as illegal immigrants. Owners exploit the uncertainty around immigration rules to keep workers under their control.

The uncertainty puts too much power into the hands of fishing vessel operators. They treat migrants as less-than workers, paying them poorly compared with UK/European fishers on the same vessels and making them live on vessels that are not intended for long-term accommodation. Again, the requirement of a contract with a stated monthly salary for the transit visa enables this labour exploitation.

The use of transit visas is the starting point for a cycle of abuse that cannot be tolerated any longer. Changing the system to close the loophole will be a major step in protecting worker rights.

We believe fishing vessel that operate from UK ports should fall under the same immigration rules that apply to any other UK employer. The fact that they move outside territorial waters periodically should be irrelevant to the way workers are treated.

Some fishers are already defined as skilled workers under UK immigration rules and so there should be no barrier to legitimate employers bringing in migrant workers.

If the use of transit visas were to be reformed, this would go a long way towards protecting migrant workers from the abuse they currently experience when working on UK fishing vessels and afford them the same rights and protections that as any other worker employed in the UK.


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.

For some in the industry, transit visas are a stepping off point to avoiding giving workers decent pay and working conditions.

Transit visas are a loophole in the system that directly results in the ongoing abuse of migrant fishers. The visas represent a critical point in a system. But they were intended for seafarers in transit – allowing them to briefly visit the UK so they can work aboard a ship which quickly proceeds into international waters. This type of visa was never meant to be used for fishers living and working in the UK.

For more than 15 years, transit visas have been a starting point for some owners to coerce and control migrant fishers. It is long overdue that loophole is closed.

Workers end up being unsure about their immigration status when transit visas are used, and that gives rogue employers a lever with which to manipulate them. A transit visa only gives a fisher the right to work on one particular vessel. This effectively wipes out their right to withdraw their labour or go to work for a different employer.

Migrant workers experiences and working lives on UK fishing vessels are not the same as that of UK nationals. News articles detail exploitative and inadequate working conditions, and human rights abuses including:

  • Forced labour.
  • Human trafficking and modern slavery.
  • Physical and verbal abuse.
  • Complete disregard for legitimate contracts.
  • Poor living conditions aboard many fishing vessels

Safety standards for migrant workers on UK fishing vessels are also a major concern. Fishers fear blacklisting or deportation and so do not report safety issues or accidents at sea.

The National Crime Agency, which fights serious and organised crime in the UK, has raided a few fishing operators. This has revealed a number of cases of where migrant fishers have tried to escape from appalling working conditions. NCA reports suggest some fishers earn as little as £100 for ten weeks’ work. There is evidence fishers have been paid as little as £3 per hour.10 The UK minimum wage is £9.18 an hour but employers dodge that pay requirement by arguing they work in international waters and are not bound by UK employment rules. These rogue employers are using transit visas to avoid paying a decent 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.11,12

Twenty years ago, the UK fishing industry mostly employed local fishers from the UK and nearby European Economic Area (EEA)

Read full report here.