Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Britain's trawler fishing shame intensifies

Fishing remains the most dangerous occupation but the financial rewards can be high. It reflects badly on the industry, therefore, when exploitation of migrant workers on board, many of them Filipinos, is so bad that it equates with modern day slavery. Back in September 2010 this blog site commented on the scandal of Irish fishing vessels using migrant labour, often without pay, and subject to intimidation, including beatings.* Then, on October 2013, I highlighted slavery in Britain's food supply chain, again involving vulnerable foreign labour cowed by threats and beatings from their gangmasters.

Since then the plight of migrant fishermen has worsened, if reports in Britain's Sunday Times are any guide, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. There is now a wide-scale police investigation into the alleged systematic abuse of migrant fishermen on board Britain's trawlers, many of them scallopers. A probe begun in 2012, involving over 150 police officers scouring the English and Scottish coasts, led to at least 50 suspected victims, mostly Filipinos, being discovered, according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and the policeman heading the investigation described that figure as "the tip of the iceberg."

Ten years have passed since the shame of 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay but the problem of exploited migrant labour has only worsened. Matters may improve when the Modern Slavery Bill is enacted to address the problem but there are no guarantees. It is essential, therefore, that the public should monitor the issue and if little changes then they should consider invoking the ultimate weapon that all boardrooms fear most of all -- concerted, sustained consumer boycott, and the first target should be the scallopers.

It would be a tragedy for all honest fishermen if such action was needed. They have wives and children to support and mortgages to pay and arguably Britain's fishing industry has suffered enough contraction dating back as far as the Icelandic cod wars of the 1970s. But they should remember that it takes only one rotten apple to sour the whole barrel so it is in their best interests to report any suspicious activity involving foreign, migrant fishermen.

Retailers could also help, including top restaurants who sell scallops at huge mark ups. So far, according to the Sunday Times, they have not been cooperative in revealing the names of their dredged scallop suppliers and details of what checks they carried out to ensure workers for those firms are not exploited. Certain TV celebrity chefs with fish restaurants were also uncooperative.

The Filipino authorities could also make a useful contribution to rid the seas of slave-like conditions. The Philippines are by far the largest overseas supplier of merchant seafarers but often the local recruiting agencies trick the potential seamen with adverts for 10-month contracts on container ships paying seven times the average Filipino's monthly income of £126. Job applicants have to pay a £600 deposit and cover their own air fares of about £300. In many cases they would have to borrow the money from the recruiter, with interest, but there would often be no intention of providing work on merchant ships. Instead, migrants would be diverted to work on trawlers once in Britain, where the risks are much higher and life-preserving clothing and equipment not provided. Such a cavalier attitude by skippers would be a blatant breach of Britain's health and safety law.

These local recruiting agencies should be put under 'heavy manners' as Jamaicans would say, including heavy fines and a ban on trading. The same harsh treatment should be meted out to trawler skippers and their owners found guilty of labour abuse, including custodial sentences and forfeiture of vessels.

The problem of migrant labour exploitation on trawlers is a recent one and perhaps would not have arisen so easily, if at all, had their never been the system of no catch, no pay for the fishermen. This has helped to diminish the pool of British trawlermen, even though when catches are good the pay is high. Foreign migrant fishermen, however, would expect a regular, fixed monthly income whether or not there were any worthwhile catches. When catches are poor this could only encourage skippers to refuse pay, a common enough accusation levelled against them, along with beatings and 22 hours work a day. Migrants' passports would also be kept from them, a common ploy used by land-based human traffickers, to prevent escapes and engaging help from the authorities.

The level of deprivation migrant fishermen suffer is painfully long, even stretching to denial of medical help on shore. It beggars belief that pursuit of greed among trawler skippers and owners in a developed, civilized country could exist and thrive through lack of condign punishment. Consumers, especially of scallops, should put the industry under notice to clean out their Augean stables of loathsome practices before there are any more Morecambe Bay tragedies.

* Google my blog: "Ireland's shameful role in migrant fishermen exposed."

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