Seafood industry cracks down on exploitation of overseas crew

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The UK seafood sector has launched Europe’s first “worker-driven” scheme to tackle the exploitation of migrant crew on British fishing boats by setting minimum standards for pay and working conditions.

The two-year pilot will be run by labour rights groups in partnership with the Seafood Ethics Action Alliance (SEA Alliance), a consumer group whose members represent 95 per cent of the UK seafood market and include Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Whitby Seafoods.

The scheme gives workers a key role in establishing, monitoring and enforcing their own employment rights. It aims to address a lack of labour legislation for crew created by an immigration “loophole” that denies those who work in international waters the protection of UK employment law.

Chris Williams, fisheries expert at the ITF, 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”.

The attempt to clean up labour standards comes after criticism of the seafood industry’s systemic dependence on low-paid migrant crew and a series of labour abuse scandals that have rocked the sector in recent years.

Experts estimate that more than 1,200 overseas crew on British boats are employed through “transit visas”, which in recent decades have been adopted by some employers seeking to evade UK employment law.

Transit visas give an individual a fixed period of time to enter and pass through the UK to a place outside the country and are intended for use by merchant seafarers, such as those boarding a cargo ship bound for another country.

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A Financial Times investigation last year highlighted the mistreatment of vulnerable overseas crew under the system, which human rights lawyers have argued facilitates modern slavery.

The government has in recent years introduced legislation to crack down on boats misusing transit visas. The Nationalities and Borders Act 2022 requires employers to apply for skilled worker visas in order to hire migrant crew in UK waters.

But many boats are exempt because they fish beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial limit. The pilot programme promises to fill the gaps in legislation for this group of workers by guaranteeing minimum standards over pay, rest hours and grievance procedures.

Unlike many voluntary corporate social responsibility schemes, the pilot programme is based on legally binding agreements between employers and buyers that incentivise adherence and are audited by an independent council.

The agreements are expected to be in place by the second quarter of this year, according to a person close to the discussions.

The programme has been launched by Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex), a non-profit group, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Fair Food Programme.

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