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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.