Fighting slavery in fishing

Slavery is an issue usually associated with history or certain countries, but the Home Office says “slavery is closer than you think”. Photo: Andrew Moore/Flickr
Slavery is an issue usually associated with history or certain countries, but the Home Office says “slavery is closer than you think”. Photo: Andrew Moore/Flickr
In 2013, 24 men from the UK maritime sector were referred as potential victims of modern slavery. Photo: Andrew Moore/Flickr
In 2013, 24 men from the UK maritime sector were referred as potential victims of modern slavery. Photo: Andrew Moore/Flickr

The UK’s Home Office is working hard to raise awareness of slavery in the fishing sector with a new campaign, aimed to give people the confidence to help tackle the ever-growing issue, writes Rachael Doyle.

Slavery is an issue usually associated with history or certain countries, but in its new campaign, the Home Office highlights the fact that “slavery is closer than you think”; it’s a global problem and the UK is no exception.

According to the UK National Referral Mechanism Statistics, in 2013 alone, 1,746 cases of slavery were reported – a 47% increase on the number of cases reported in 2012. The Home Office says modern slavery shows no signs of diminishing and is actually a growing international crime, affecting men, women and children, with an estimated 29.8 million slaves affected around the world, according to the Global Slavery Index.

As a global problem that transcends age, gender and ethnicities, slavery can include victims that have been brought from overseas and vulnerable people in the UK, being forced to illegally work against their will.

The latest figures from The Salvation Army reveal the number of modern slavery victims they help in the UK alone has risen by 62%.

Karen Bradley, minister for modern slavery and organised crime, told World Fishing and Aquaculture: “Shockingly, there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history.”

And while incidents are reported, Ms Bradley says slavery’s “hidden nature” means actual numbers of slavery victims are likely to be much higher.

While victims are found in the UK, the can came from a number of different countries including Romania, Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam and the UK itself – 90 were UK nationals in 2013.

Driving factors
In its campaign, the Home Office also highlights the key drivers that contribute to trafficking of victims – poverty, limited opportunities at home, lack of education, unstable social and political conditions, economic imbalances and war.

Types of slavery according to the Home Office include child trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour and sexual exploitation. In addition, victims can often face more than one type of abuse and slavery, for example if they are sold to another trafficker and then forced into another form of exploitation.

A range of industries are targeted by traffickers and illegal gangmasters, and the fishing sector is no different. In 2013, 24 men from the UK maritime sector were referred as potential victims of modern slavery.

“The vast majority of UK captains and skippers will be recruiting fisherman legitimately, but some could find themselves targeted by unscrupulous gangmasters offering a ready supply of labour at knocked down rates, or getting cheap labour from ships in international waters,” Ms Bradley explained.

In 2012, the maritime sector landed £770m worth of fish in the UK, says the Home Office, and with “organised criminals” looking for opportunities to exploit this lucrative industry and damage the UK economy, it’s vital employers know how to spot the signs.

“Employers need to be aware of the signs so they can spot potential victims of slavery,” Ms Bradley added. “The signs may be physical, such as withdrawn behaviour or untreated injuries, or there might be other suspicious circumstances such as workers who don’t have their legal documents or a group who all have their wages paid into the same bank account.”

Industry collaboration
Others are also doing their bit to address the increasing issue of slavery, like the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), which launched a joint ‘Catcher to Counter’ campaign in 2010.

The organisations say they started the campaign on the back of concerns over the increase in multinational companies that own both fleet and fish processing facilities, the way that profits were being maximised at the cost of workers’ pay and conditions, and the sustainability of fish stocks and security of workers on vessels that travelled further out to sea for longer periods of time.

Together, the ITF and IUF committed to support workers’ organising to defend their own interests and fight union-busting from transnational or local companies, to lobby for the ratification of ILO Convention 188, to contribute to the eradication of child and forced labour and human trafficking, and to contribute to the eradication of IUU fishing.

Talking four years on since the ITF-IUF collaboration on the campaign began, Ron Oswald, general secretary, IUF, said: “It is abhorrent that in the 21st century we receive weekly examples of modern slavery both on land and at sea. Our joint cooperation has been extended to ensure that the success of the work so far can continue through our next Congress periods and beyond.”

Exposing the truth
In recent years, a number of exposés have been published by the Environmental Justice Federation (EJF), but Jon Whitlow, ITF seafarers’ section secretary says The Guardian’s was the first one to name the retailers. “The Guardian’s exposure of the Thai fisheries worker abuse highlighted the importance of total transparency across the supply chain and the delivery of corporate social responsibility throughout the supply chain. It is up to retailers to demand this and some of them are now doing so,” Mr Whitlow added.

In addition, a recent amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill UK now enables law enforcement officers to check stateless vessels in international waters that do not form part of the territorial sea of any State, where a modern slavery offence is suspected.

Elsewhere, police in Scotland are said to be investigating the deaths of two Filipino fishermen who are said to have been forced to work by job agencies from their homeland to re-pay excessive “loans” used to get them work in the UK.

And, according to media reports, police are also looking into allegations of human trafficking and slavery in parts of Britain’s fishing fleet after a man alleged that he was forced to continue working on a British prawn trawler despite having part of his finger torn off in an accident.

Fighting fishing slavery
With an increasing amount of modern slavery allegations, the Home Office is now calling on the fishing sector to help reduce the number of slavery victims around the world and is hoping to give people the confidence to report it.

Ms Bradley concluded: “Slavery can affect businesses across the globe, regardless of size or sector. We cannot beat slavery without the help of UK businesses and we need the fishing sector to join our fight.”

Concerned employers can call the Home Office’s dedicated helpline on +44 (0)800 0121 700 or visit Or, if there are any doubts about whether a labour provider is licensed, contact the Gangmaster Licensing Authority for confirmation.


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