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8 Jul 2023

UK: FT investigates fishing industry dependence on "transit visas" & migrant fishers' vulnerability to labour exploitation; incl. co. responses

A Financial Times investigation into working conditions for migrant fishers employed on "transit visas" to work on fishing boats out of Northern Ireland has found health and safety breaches, low wages and long hours for crews. Transit visas give individuals fixed periods of time to pass through the country; visa holders are not subject to immigration controls or entitled to UK employment law protections. Lawyers at UK firm Leigh Day have initiated a judicial review against the Home Office, arguing that the visa arrangements breach European human rights law.

The investigation also highlights the experiences of four fishers from the Philippines, employed by Kearney Trawlers and MFV Strathmore, suppliers of seafood that is sold in major British supermarkets, including Asda, Tesco and Morrisons. The report states that Young's Seafood and Whitby Seafoods have processing facilities in the same harbour.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited all five companies to:

  1. Respond to the report’s findings and workers’ allegations of abusive working conditions;
  2. Disclose the steps it has taken to investigate and remedy workers for the abuse reported; and,
  3. Disclose any human rights due diligence it undertakes prior to entering into contracts with suppliers and when monitoring working conditions at suppliers.

Responses from Young's Seafood, Whitby Seafoods, Asda, Morrisons and Tesco are available below; none of the companies addressed the above questions. The Seafood Ethics Action (SEA) Alliance published a statement on behalf of their membership regarding the Financial Times piece and broader concerns relating to worker welfare in the UK fishing sector - this is available in full below.

On 8th July 2023, the Financial Times reported the Seafood Ethics Action (SEA) Alliance launched an investigation into the claims of malpractice in the sector in response to the Financial Times allegations of abuse. The investigation will include an analysis of the need for 'human rights reform' in the industry. The Alliance includes 95% of the UK's seafood market, including Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Whitby Seafoods.

The UK’s transit visas allow British companies a loophole to evade legal responsibilities to respect migrant workers’ labour right. This is in breach of the UK’s international human rights and labour rights obligations. By tying fishers’ visas to one particular vessel it allows employers to have huge control over workers that they can abuse and exploit. This . . . is similar to other tied-visa systems such as the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system in the Middle East, which enables forced labour and other systemic abuses against migrant workers,
Rothna Begum, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch
The transit visa scheme appears to be unlawful as it facilitates the exploitation and forced labour of migrant fishers and doesn’t allow the state to meet its obligations to prevent trafficking and forced labour
Carolin Ott, solicitor at Leigh Day

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Company Responses

Young's Seafood View Response
Whitby Seafoods Ltd. View Response
Morrisons View Response