Financial Times (UK): “Fair Fish” pilot program builds momentum on way to launch in Northeast Scotland as UK’s top buyers join talks to back the WSR initiative

Financial Times: “The ‘worker-driven social responsibility’ pilot would ensure minimum standards around wages, rest and grievance procedures.”

Mike Park, head of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, to the Financial Times: “Park said he hoped the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the programme could be agreed by the end of 2023, with a view to launching it next year. If successful, the scheme could be replicated across the UK.”

Investigation: “A fisherman is six times more likely to die at work than those in the most dangerous job on land…”

In September of last year, the CIW and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) announced a groundbreaking collaboration to “explore the implementation of the award-winning WSR model in the UK fishing industry.”  Their goal: To build and launch a pilot program, based on the CIW’s Fair Food Program, with fishers, vessel owners, and retail seafood buyers to address generations of labor abuse on the high seas.  Today — nearly one year of coalition building and careful planning later — the work in the UK is picking up steam, and the growing partnership for a more modern fishing industry is looking to be ready to launch by the end of 2023, according to reporting from the Financial Times. 

Inspired and informed by the unparalleled success of the Fair Food Program, this pilot, which has been referred to as the ‘Fair Fish’ Program, will be the first-ever WSR program for fishers, who have historically been some of the most marginalized workers around the globe, with extremely dangerous working conditions and many at risk of modern-day slavery.  The CIW and the Fair Food Standards Council have been closely advising this pilot, hosting a delegation of UK fishing industry leaders in Immokalee for a several day visit with Fair Food Program workers, growers and buyers, after traveling to Scotland last last year to see the fishing industry up close, and visiting London again this year for a series of follow-up meetings. And now that the initiative is gaining momentum, some of the UK’s biggest buyers of seafood are in talks to provide the market power that would give this pilot the teeth  it needs to enforce the rights of vulnerable fishers under its protections. 

This comes at a crucial time for thousands of fishers in the country: a recent exposé on the UK fishing industry detailed the myriad workplace dangers migrant fishermen face, and is worth reading to get a full sense of what happens when workers do not have an effective voice and the power to monitor and enforce their own rights. Here are a few excerpts from that expose: 

“On average, 38 fishermen are killed or injured on UK-registered vessels each year, according to the government’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). A fisherman is six times more likely to die at work than those in the most dangerous job on land…”

“…Locals often saw migrant fishers working onshore. Over the course of reporting this story, I spoke to other migrant crew elsewhere in the UK who said they had been required to work on land or were otherwise mistreated. The International Transport Workers’ Federation, Stella Maris and the Fishermen’s Mission shared more than a dozen recent accounts of alleged abuse involving employers elsewhere not detailed in this article, including several which are the subject of modern slavery investigations. “It’s not right,” one retired captain in Kilkeel told me. “They’re the same as ourselves, not different people. If it wouldn’t be for migrant workers, there wouldn’t be no boats.”

“In the Philippines, working abroad conveys a certain status; Filipinos account for more than a quarter of the globe’s seafarers. So the migrants in Kilkeel tended not to publicise the downsides of their life in the UK. On Facebook, they didn’t post photos of the cabins they shared with four or five others for hundreds of days on end. They didn’t talk of the cuts and cracks on their salt-chapped hands. Instead, they shared pictures of themselves on deck in the sun or posing in second-hand leather jackets and trainers…”

As the WSR pilot program in Scotland gets close to launching, the ultimate goal is that it can be scaled to meet the full scope of this moment in the UK fishing industry and join the growing ranks of proven WSR programs, including the FFP in agriculture, the Milk with Dignity Program in dairy, the Bangladesh and Pakistan Accords in textiles and a nascent program fighting gender-based violence in Lesotho’s garment sector. 

Here is the Financial Times piece in its entirety:

UK seafood sector in talks to clean up labour standards on fishing vessels

Supermarkets among groups behind pilot scheme to combat human rights abuses in British fleet

Antonia Cundy in London July 27, 2023

‘Top supermarkets and seafood businesses are in talks to launch a pilot scheme in North East Scotland to ensure fair employment conditions for migrant crew on UK fishing vessels, according to those close to the discussions.

The consumer groups include Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Whitby Seafoods, which belong to the Seafood Ethics Action (Sea) Alliance. The alliance is overseeing discussions on behalf of its members that together represent 95 per cent of the UK seafood market.

The move to improve the welfare of migrant workers follows strong criticism of the seafood industry over its dependence on low-paid fishers from countries such as the Philippines, Ghana, and Sri Lanka.

Many migrant fishers are employed through an immigration loophole that leaves them unprotected by UK employment law because the boats they work on fish in international waters. Human rights lawyers have argued the system facilitates modern slavery.

The government is facing a judicial review over the so-called “transit visa” system underpinning this form of employment, which was the subject of a Financial Times investigation last month.

The “worker-driven social responsibility” pilot would ensure minimum standards around wages, rest and grievance procedures. It is being devised in consultation with workers, and participating suppliers would be audited by an independent council, though the details have not yet been finalised.

“Some of the criticism of ‘transit visas’ currently is that people can choose as and what they pay workers because they’re not bound by UK law,” said Mike Park, head of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, the largest fish producer group in Europe. “Within this scheme, we would want to make it so that losing your place [in the programme] is an economic problem.”

The pilot is set to launch in North East Scotland in partnership with the SWFPA. The International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global trade union collective, is advising on the project as a stakeholder.

“The Sea alliance and its member companies are encouraged by the development of a pilot project within the Scottish fishing sector, driven by the methodology of ‘worker-driven social responsibility’,” said Andy Hickman, head of the Sea alliance.

He added that the group was in “active discussions” with representatives from the Scottish fishing sector and worker welfare groups “to understand the role we may play in this project”.

Jessica Sparks, assistant professor at the Friedman School at Tufts University who is helping to design and implement the pilot, said it was important not to rush the process and to ensure it was “truly worker-driven”.

She added that the scheme’s independent standards council must be “rooted in the local context . . . to ensure workers trust it and are going to use it”.

The pilot is also being developed in consultation with the US-based Fair Food Program, a worker-driven initiative that protects the rights of migrant workers in Florida tomato fields.

Park said he hoped the “nuts and bolts” of the programme could be agreed by the end of 2023, with a view to launching it next year. If successful, the scheme could be replicated across the UK.

Philanthropic organisations Humanity United and Freedom Fund are providing initial funding to the scheme before it transitions to a self-funded model.”