How Indian fishers suffer exploitation and abuse on UK boats

On a cold January morning in 2023, Mariyappan woke up to an email that would change his life forever. A fishing company in the United Kingdom was offering him a job as a deckhand for a monthly salary of 1,400 pounds, or Rs 1,47,000, an amount that he thought could lift his family out of poverty.

Mariyappan, who belongs to a fishing community in Kanniyakumari, Tamil Nadu, immediately accepted the offer, from the Star Fishing Company. On February 26, he boarded a plane in Chennai and reached London, flying via Doha. He had been issued a transit visa, which offers holders a 48-hour window to pass through United Kingdom territories.

His destination was Aberdeen, a port city in northeast Scotland, where a car was waiting to transport him to the fishing vessel to which he had been assigned, Star of Jura. He joined the boat on February 27 and began his work alongside two other Indians, Bishan and Santosh, who were from Kerala and who were already part of the crew as deckhands. (Crew members asked to be identified by pseudonyms because they feared their livelihood opportunities would otherwise be jeopardised.)

A deckhand’s job is to clean decks, prepare fishing gear, maintain equipment, and manage the catch. With his family in mind, Mariyappan laboured day after day onboard the Star of Jura.

Three months after working and staying on the boat, fighting off daily pangs of seasickness and sleeplessness, Mariyappan, Bishan, and Santosh found themselves in a dangerous situation.

On May 19, 2023, the Star of Jura’s captain, who was English, decided to dock the ship at Whitby Harbour in northern England for routine service and repair work. The next morning, the United Kingdom Border Force arrived at the vessel and confiscated all the Indian fishermen’s documents, including passports and discharge books, which are documents that record seafarers’ work experience and qualifications. They then arrested all three for allegedly breaking a law that bars transit-visa holders from entering the country except when they are passing through it. They were also accused of violating a rule that bars fishers with transit visas from working within 22 km of the British coast.

For more than a month after, the three workers were held in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre – their families back home were not informed of their incarceration. Authorities also threatened that they would be banned from working in the United Kingdom for ten years.

Although the ban was reduced to one year after the intervention of workers’ bodies and lawyers representing the crewmen, on July 9, 2023, the men were deported back to India, which is home to the second-largest number of seafarers after the Philippines. They remain in the country, out of work and uncertain about their futures.

The Star of Jura reportedly went out to fish again the following day, according to Chris Williams, a fisheries expert at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global organisation that advocates for seafarers’ rights, safety and better working conditions. Star Fishing Company did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The workers’ arrest and deportation came two years after the United Kingdom and India forged a partnership that focuses on preventing immigration abuse, enabling the legal movement of workers and returning irregular migrants between the two countries.

Simultaneously, the United Kingdom has also unleased a significantly more aggressive on-ground policy against immigrants of all nations – in 2023, immigration enforcement raids saw a rise of 68%.

British recruitment agencies started hiring Indian crew for the United Kingdom’s fishing industry only around five years ago – they found these workers with the help of agents in India. Mariyappan, Bishan, and Santosh were among the first migrant Indian fishermen working on United Kingdom fishing boats to be arrested for alleged visa violations.

Boats in Colachal Harbour, Kanniyakumari. British agencies started hiring Indian crew for the United Kingdom’s fishing industry around five years ago, finding them with the help of agents in India. Photo: Imran Muzaffar

Legal experts and rights bodies argue that the arrest of the fishermen and their subsequent deportation to India brings to the fore the widespread and unreported abuse of Indian seafarers on fishing vessels in the United Kingdom. Under the transit-visa system, fishing companies hire seafarers or deckhands from outside the country, and outside the European Union, for as little as a third of the price of British crewmen. The companies hire these workers because the fishing force of the United Kingdom is aging and the industry is struggling with labour issues.

Once on board, seafarers are no longer governed by the United Kingdom’s employment laws and immigration controls, a legal loophole used by fishing companies, boat owners, and skippers to exploit and abuse migrant workers, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation. As a result, they end up working and living aboard the boats in international waters, in poor conditions and beyond any legal oversight.

These problems were highlighted in a report by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab in 2022. The researchers found rampant abuse of migrant fishermen on United-Kingdom-flagged fishing vessels. Among other problems, it found that workers were overworked, underpaid, made to perform tasks outside the remit of their jobs, and frequently subjected to verbal and psychological harassment. Such treatment, it observed, was in contravention of the International Labour Organization’s laws pertaining to the fishing sector. The report noted that “exploitative labour practices and forced labour are endemic across the UK fishing industry. These practices are compounded by ambiguous laws that are often interpreted differently by different actors.”

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Mariyappan, Bishan and Santosh are from fishing families whose fathers have fished all their lives. Thus, they grew up keenly aware of the precarity of the sea and coastal weather. For decades, India’s 4,670-mile coastline has been a major flashpoint of disasters like tropical cyclones and tsunamis.

The Indian Ocean witnessed eight cyclones in 2023, three in 2022, and five each in 2021 and 2020, according to India Meteorological Department data. “Every day, going into the ocean was a risk,” Mariyappan said.

Their families also faced challenges that resulted from the rampant extraction of natural resources. Kildos Anthony Pillai, secretary at Tamil Nadu’s St Devasahayam Institute of Fisheries Science and Technology, explained, for instance, that the 2004 tsunami caused far more damage in villages where sand-mining had been carried out indiscriminately. He anticipates more such problems in the future. “Sand dunes are natural protectors that don’t allow the sea to intrude,” he said. “But since these dunes have been completely removed as a result of extraction, the level of the sea is rising. All this means there is more trouble unfolding in the near future.”

A seawall in Thiruvanananthapuram. Those whose livelihoods depend on the sea have to contend with precarious coastal weather, whose effects are exacerbated by rampant extraction of natural resources. Photo: Saqib Mohammad

Partly to escape these hardships and earn a sustainable living, young fishermen from across south India have since the mid-2000s migrated overseas for better opportunities. Around 5,000 fishermen from Kanniyakumari district alone have migrated to Gulf countries for work, said Pillai.

Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mariyappan, who has a first-class master’s degree in computer applications, undertook several low-paying jobs. His last engagement before he moved abroad was that of a waiter at a restaurant in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. He drew a monthly salary of Rs 10,000, but the amount was not enough to meet his family’s needs.

His father, a fisherman, was unable to go back to work after meeting with an accident in 2018. In 2019, Mariyappan took a loan of Rs 10 lakh for his sister’s dowry.

“Once you are surrounded by responsibilities and there are very few opportunities at home, you do everything in your capacity to give comfort to your family,” he said. “My parents have suffered all their lives and I did not want them to suffer further.”

The first time Mariyappan entered the United Kingdom was in January 2020, just two months before the imposition of a nationwide lockdown in India in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The move seemed attractive given the problem of unemployment back home – by March, the unemployment rate in his home state would soar up to 17%.

He learnt of a Mumbai-based recruitment agent through one of his friends. After meeting the agent in Mumbai, Mariyappan paid Rs 1.5 lakh for assistance with finding work abroad. A week later, with the agent’s help, he procured a job in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.

“Charging any fee to fishermen for jobs is completely illegal,” said Sharon Cooper, crewing liaison officer at the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, an organisation that serves as an interface between United-Kingdom-flagged vessels and seafarers. “Unfortunately, a majority of agents are money-driven.”

On January 24, Mariyappan started work as a deckhand on a fishing boat, Northern Dawn, owned by Kearney Fishing. He began his work from Kilkeel, a small Northern Ireland town, and was offered a monthly salary of 900 pounds. But on December 5, 2020, his contract expired and he was sent back home.

For the next two years, Mariyappan struggled to get a job, as Coronavirus swept through India, killing half a million, the third-highest number of casualties in the world after the United States and Brazil, while causing a severe dent to the economy. “I was clueless and I thought this is the end,” he said. But the 1400-pound offer from Star Fishing Company in January 2023 filled him with hope again.

A 2022 report found that migrant workers on fishing boats in the United Kingdom were overworked, underpaid, and frequently subjected to verbal and psychological harassment. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Like Mariyappan, Bishan, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, too had joined a fishing boat overseas before. He first travelled abroad in 2017, when he visited the United Arab Emirates in search of a job. Despite spending Rs 1 lakh on the trip, he did not find one. In 2019, he visited Mumbai on the suggestion of his friends, where he met a recruitment agent. Bishan recounted that he paid Rs 4 lakh to the agent, who secured him a deckhand’s job with GP Shipping Services, for a monthly salary of 1,250 pounds. In September, he joined a fishing boat named Cordelia in Southwick, a town in England near the English Channel. “The agent told me strength is enough for the job and I said I have plenty of that,” said Bishan.

William George Maskame, a director at GP Shipping Services said the company has never received a complaint about any of his agents collecting fees to provide jobs. “All our crew read and sign a pre-joining letter which I send over before joining and signing all contracts,” he said. “If I had heard that I’d be chomping on the bit.”

Bishan’s first contract ended in October 2020, but he went on to sign on for work with other boats, eventually joining the Star of Jura in February 2023.

Santosh, too, had worked abroad before his stint with the Star of Jura. In 2022, he had worked as a deckhand on a fishing boat in Aberdeen, before returning to India. He was home in February 2023, when a post appeared on a WhatsApp group he was part of, administered by the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, about an urgent need for three scallopers with experience of working the United Kingdom. Santosh applied quickly, and was hired.

Santosh signed a 12-month contract on February 22, 2023 for a monthly salary of 1,400 pounds. Four days later, he took a flight from Mumbai to Fraserburgh, where he was assigned the vessel, Star of Jura.

He worked alongside Mariyappan and Bishan for three months until the day the police arrived and arrested them.

Interviews with dozens of migrant Indian fishers revealed that workers face several layers of abuse and exploitation onboard United-Kingdom-flagged vessels.

Tina Barnes of the Seafarers’ Charity, a United-Kingdom-based organisation that works for seafarers’ rights, noted that workers “are exploited already when they are hired for even less than minimum wage, which is just shocking and disgraceful”.

Further, she said, fishing companies often took custody of migrant seafarers’ documents as a step towards restricting them from leaving their jobs, a measure that was rooted in “a patronising and paternalistic culture on the part of the UK”.

Baiju, who is from Tamil Nadu, joined a ship called Sea Lady in July 2022 as a deckhand. Soon, he discovered that the working conditions under the skipper, whom he described as “rich and influential” were abysmal – he recounted that crew were mentally harassed, shouted and sworn at and denied adequate rest. “The skipper treated us like slaves, there was no time for us to sleep and take meals,” he said. “Even as we used to work for 36 hours continuously, the skipper would indulge in verbal abuse.”

Baiju sent several complaints via emails and text messages to company officials against the skipper. He never received a response. “It seemed my messages were going straight to the trash bin,” he said. “After some time, I learnt it is futile to approach anyone.”

In September 2022, tired of this treatment, he quit his job on the ship, which by this time had been renamed as Stella Maris.

But a rude shock awaited him – Seafood Ecosse, the seafood processing company that owns the ship, threatened to dock pay for several weeks’ work that he had already put in. The Scottish White Fish Producers Association, however, pressured the company to eventually pay Baiju in full. Seafood Ecosse did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Baiju’s experiences were echoed by many others. “I have worked 12 to 18 hours at a stretch,” said Mariyappan. “We are sleepless almost all the time. There is no one around to talk to.”

The scale and quantum of work was too much for Santosh, one of the three seafarers deported back to India in 2023. “We used to do dredging, gear work, and collect scallops,” he said. “From fuelling the vessel to filling water, everything had to be managed.”

He added, “But the way we were arrested and deported, it felt as if we were kidnappers and murderers.”

For Bishan, it had become difficult to eat. “I was vomiting all the time and there was no time to sleep,” he said. He explained that their meals largely comprised bland boiled food, which he found almost unpalatable. “But there were no other options,” he said.

A boatman navigates waves off the coast of Tamil Nadu. “When you want to provide for your family, the danger recedes in the background,” Mariyapan said. “All you think about is work, work and work.” Photo: Imran Muzaffar

A request under the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency revealed that there were 32 complaints about human rights violations of fishers in the country between June 2020 and August 2023. These included complaints about non-payment of wages, denial of adequate food and water, confiscation of passports, poor living conditions, racist abuse and lack of medical care.

Williams of the International Transport Workers’ Federation pointed out that these formal reports represent a fraction of actual abuses experienced by seafarers. He added that there “has been a lot of very poor process on the part of the authorities and repeated shortcomings with trusting fishing companies known to be repeat offenders”.

Seafarers are also exposed to tremendous physical risks in the course of their work. According to a 2022 report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, a United Kingdom government agency that investigates maritime accidents involving British vessels, that year, 57 fishing vessels witnessed 56 accidents, leading to the drowning and asphyxiation of three crewmen, while 28 suffered serious injuries such as traumatic amputations, burns, concussions and fractures.

“You get used to enduring the extremes when you’ve a higher calling,” said Mariyappan, sitting in a plastic chair at his home in Muttom, a coastal village in Kanniyakumari district. “When you want to provide for your family, the danger recedes in the background. All you think about is work, work, and work.”

After the arrest of Mariyappan, Bishan and Santosh, the International Transport Workers’ Federation hired a London-based immigration lawyer, Thal Vasishta of Paragon Law, to represent the seafarers in the case.

According to staff of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, days after their arrest, the fishermen were replaced with other foreign-born fishers. Meanwhile, the staffers said, none of their superiors at the fishing company were penalised. Further, according to satellite data accessed by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, between January and July 2023, the Star of Jura “was observed fishing almost entirely (99%) within the 12-mile limit”, referring to 12 nautical miles, or approximately 22 km.

For several weeks, Vasishta fought the fishermen’s case against the United Kingdom’s immigration service.

The actions of the United Kingdom Home Office to arrest and then deport them shocked him. “There was no need for the crew to spend over a month in detention,” he said. “Each one of them had families back in India who were depending on them.”

Vasishta said captains were responsible for decisions such as where ships are docked. “It is the captains who flout immigration rules and the deckhands have very little say in this,” he said. “Where the ship captains have been found to breach the laws, why blame the deckhands?”

Mariyappan echoed this observation. “No crew can say to skipper, ‘Don’t dock here,’” he said.

The case was settled with a reduction of the ban on the three workers to just 12 months. Their employers paid them the wages they were due, and they were flown back to India.

But the memories of prison still haunt the fishers. “Every day in the detention was a day of oppression,” said Bishan. “I wish nobody ever goes through such suffering.”

Youngsters play on a beach in Kerala. The fishermen arrested in 2023 are now back home, waiting for the bans imposed on them from working in the United Kingdom to be lifted. Photo: Saqib Mohammad

Williams explained that the International Transport Workers’ Federation had been raising seafarers’ concerns with the fishing companies. “I’ve also written to the CEOs of Britain’s major seafood buyers, demanding that if crews sign contracts with their suppliers in good faith, and are criminalised or sent home early, we expect the buyers to cough up the rest of their contracts,” he said.

Mariyappan now works as a daily-wage employee on fishing boats in Kanniyakumari, cleaning decks, assisting in managing catch, and arranging plastic crates. “When there is work available, I make Rs 500 a day,” he said. “But on most days, there is no work.” He added that what he earns does not suffice for his family’s needs, particularly since he is the only earning member.

He is desperate to return to the United Kingdom, and is eagerly awaiting June, when the ban will be lifted. “I know that a seaman’s job is dangerous and no less than a nightmare, but I am willing to go back to work for my family,” he said. “I don’t want us to end up in a cycle of debt.”

Responsibilities mount even as the seafarers wait for work. “Now I have a child to raise and a family to look after,” Bishan said. “I want this ban to be lifted at the earliest. There is nothing much that I can do in India.”

Laura Cole and Christine Ro contributed reporting from London.

Reporting for this story was supported by Journalismfund Europe under the Earth Investigative Grants Programme.

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