‘You complain, you get fired’: migrant crews on UK fishing boats speak out

‘You complain, you get fired’: migrant crews on UK fishing boats speak out

‘You complain, you get fired’: migrant crews on UK fishing boats speak out

Seagulls follow a prawn trawler in the rough seas in Loch Long, Scotland. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Trapped by the terms of ‘transit visas’, many seafarers from outside the EEA are facing exploitation, danger and violence.

“On fishing boats, I’d work 10 hours and rest 14,” says Appia, 37, a father of five. Supply boats were 12 hours of work, 12 hours of rest. “But I have never worked more than my hours of rest until I came here.”

A deckhand on a scallop dredger in the North Sea, he says he regularly works 20 hours with only four hours’ rest and no proper days off, leaving him exhausted. The conditions he describes would breach UK legislation on fishing industry working hours, which stipulate 10 hours’ rest in any 24-hour period.

Fishing men prepare their nets and boats before heading out to sea, Northern Ireland.
Fishermen in Northern Ireland prepare to head out to sea. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/Alamy

“Working overtime continuously reduces your strength and leaves you overstressed,” he says, speaking from a ship in a Scottish port, from a small cabin he shares with three other migrants.

“You can easily forget things,” he adds. “It’s a dangerous job. If you do forget something, like connecting and disconnecting thick wires on the dredges … you could be dead.”

Appia was hired on a transit visa, intended to allow non-British crew to join ships leaving UK ports for international waters. Boat owners apply for transit visas on the basis that their vessel operates “wholly or mainly” outside UK territorial waters, which are defined as more than 12 nautical miles from shore.

Those on transit visas have no legal authority to “enter” the UK without permission when they return to port. Consequently, they are tied to a single employer and forced to live onboard the vessel, leaving the worker reliant on the job for their accommodation, food etc.

Migrants in the fishing industry who spoke to the Guardian say the loophole allows them to be exploited and mistreated. They add that boat owners use the confusion and ambiguities in immigration rules to threaten workers with deportation and to control them.

“My visa doesn’t allow me to go get another job,” Appia says. “I don’t have a choice to go to another boat where the skipper is good and the money is good.”

The accounts come after a study published last month by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, which focuses on modern slavery. It found that crew on UK fishing boats from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), which covers EU and European Free Trade Association states, experience exploitation, violence, racism and abuse.

Researchers found they worked excessive hours on an average salary of £3.51 an hour, a third of Britain’s living wage and a fraction of the share of the catch earned by EU and UK crew.

Workers unload a trawler under lights at night
Offloading the catch from a trawler in Eyemouth, Berwickshire. Crew members on transit visas are tied to a single employer and forced to live onboard the vessel. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) describes transit visas as the “starting point for labour abuse” of migrants working in the UK fishing industry. It is lobbying for a switch to a skilled workers’ visa, which would give them more protection.

Appia’s contract states the hours of work are “in accordance with the operational requirements” of the vessel. A timetable onboard reads six hours’ work, six hours’ rest, he says. In addition to working continuous overtime, he says he is verbally abused and forced to go fishing in weather that other vessels avoid.

“We have two sets of skippers. One doesn’t care if it’s a storm, [if] the waves are big. On deck, it’s a big risk. I try to focus, to think of my kids. I’m careful.”

Appia adds: “Sometimes the skipper loses his temper. They bully you. They say ‘fuck you’ and ‘Are you senseless?’”

“If you complain, you get fired,” he says. He earns £1,000, with a £200 bonus, a month.

A 2017 survey by Seafish, the public body overseeing the UK industry, estimated that foreign nationals accounted for 39% of all deckhands in the UK. More recently, the organisation estimated 19% of all crew were from outside the UK.

A man tips a basket of crustacea into the sea from a boat
Throwing back bycatch from a prawn fishing boat. One deckhand works 12-hour shifts with only four hours to rest; his contract specifies 10-hour breaks. Photograph: Patrick Forget/Alamy

Kwame Mensah*, 41, a deckhand on a prawn trawler based in a harbour in Northern Ireland, says he works 12-hour shifts, with four hours of rest in between. His contract, which sets out his pay at £1,200 a month, states that “where possible” he should have 10 hours rest in any 24 hours.

Mensah, who has worked on several UK fishing vessels over the past decade, describes his current skipper as a “good guy”, but says he has known others who are “wicked and abusive”.

“We want all this to stop,” he says.

Michael Yeboah*, 39, from east Ghana, told the Guardian how confusion over immigration rules led to him being arrested and jailed overnight in 2016, after he was in effect abandoned by his skipper, three months into a year-long contract.

Yeboah and two others were told to leave the vessel after it was stopped at port for not having sufficient lifeboats. They were arrested and detained by police for immigration offences, because their visas did not allow them to leave the harbourside.

“We were afraid. It was my first time being handcuffed,” says Yeboah. “I thought we were going to be deported and I would lose my 12-month contract.”

A fishing trawler as white-capped waves roll in
A fishing trawler outside Troon harbour during Storm Franklin in February. Some migrant deckhands say their skippers will go out in all weather. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

They were later released, but the fishing company then gave them flight tickets and told them to return to Ghana. “They told us if you don’t take the ticket and go home, we’ll call immigration.

Yeboah was paid for only two months’ work instead of three, he says. Out of his £1,400 earnings, he owed his agent £800, leaving him with only £600.

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, speaking on behalf of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, an industry body made up of national fishing federations, said: “The FWA agrees that the transit worker visa isn’t fit for purpose and we deplore anyone being treated badly in the industry.”

Nevertheless, the FWA believed the recent Nottingham University study was not representative of the situation in the UK, she said.

Two men in oilskins pulling on fishing nets at the back of a boat
Migrant workers ‘exploited and beaten’ on UK fishing boats

“However, no one in fishing should be working in ways that endanger their safety or compromise their welfare. The FWA will be meeting shortly with government and with partners in the seafood supply chain to consider the issues raised in these reports. We will continue to drive forward to ensure that all our workers are respected and well cared for.”

The Home Office said transit visas did not permit working in the UK, either on land or in UK territorial waters but did not comment on calls to close the loophole.

In a statement, a spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a heinous crime, that is why the 2015 Modern Slavery Act gives law-enforcement agencies, including the police and Border Force, the powers to investigate modern slavery offences at sea, including the power to stop, board, divert, detain and search a vessel, and to make arrests and seize any relevant evidence.”

* Names have been changed to protect identities.