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The challenges of enforcing international legislation to protect the rights of fishing crew have been highlighted by global maritime charity Stella Maris.

For the past year the charity has been involved in an ongoing case in which officers were recruited from abroad by overseas agents to work on a fishing vessel based in Scotland.

The case was highlighted in the charity's webinar on Modern Slavery and Exploitation in the Fishing Industry, which looked at exploitation of fishing crews against the powers of the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s Convention 188 – known as the bill of rights for fishers.

In early November 2020, the fishing boat was working in Shoreham, Sussex, and was about to sail back to Scotland. The crew contacted Stella Maris saying they feared for their safety and lives and that they wanted desperately to get off the vessel.

The crew reported to Stella Maris that:

  • the crew were forced to work 20 hours a day, and then eat, sleep, shower, and contact family in the remaining four hours
  • they did not receive wages into their bank accounts
  • the boat was not safe, and not properly maintained
  • the crew were subjected to mental, emotional, racial, and physical abuse, and exposed to dangerous and illegal working practices
  • they were denied adequate food and drinking water, and one of the men was even denied medical attention after suffering serious injury

Stella Maris's senior area port chaplain for the south of England and Wales Deacon Nick O'Neill provided pastoral support for the distressed crew, and also contacted the police, the harbour master and modern slavery hotline.

After further interviews, the fishing crew were placed in the care of Stella Maris, and the deacon and his team of ship visitors helped find them a hotel, supplied clothing, food, and cash for essential short-term needs. The charity also arranged legal representation and emergency dental care.

The seafarers have now been placed in the national referral mechanism, awaiting a decision from the Home Office on their future.

Stella Maris chief executive officer Martin Foley said that the real challenge is one of enforcing international legislation that exists to protect the rights of fishers, particularly as very few states have ratified the ILO [Work in Fishing] Convention 188, and even fewer states are actively enforcing it.

That Convention includes the Fisherman's Working Agreement (FWA) which gives standards of welfare at work. This includes place of work, wages, length of employment, healthcare, repatriation, and the fact that repatriation should be paid by the fishing vessel owner.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) UK Fisheries Section lead Chris Williams commented: 'This is sadly not an isolated case in the UK. Over the past decade we have had a multitude of shocking stories in newspapers and fisheries cases from ports in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland on UK-flagged vessels documenting the abuse of fishers' rights.

'The ITF will publish information as and when active cases have been resolved and calls on the UK government and agencies to implement the work in fishing convention (ILO c.188) to ensure that these abuses are dealt with and prevented in the future.'


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