UK fishing industry

 A new Paper published by the NEF looks at Labour Vulnerability in the UK Fishing Industry

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has produced a report into labour in the UK fishing industry post-Brexit.

The paper entitled ‘Beneath the Surface – Labour Vulnerability in the UK Fishing Industry’ has been written by Griffin Carpenter, Chris Williams and Emily Scurrah takes a look at the possible consequences that Brexit could have on the supply of workers into the UK fishing industry..

They say that in post-Brexit, the supply of labour must be factored into these news fisheries policy. 

The twenty-five page document examines the structure of labour in the UK fishing industry, the challenges with the current fisheries labour model and policy implications. The paper’s introduction reads:

The Covid-19 public health crisis has exposed many weaknesses and vulnerabilities in how our economy is structured. Some of these vulnerabilities have for a long time been known but routinely ignored. Others have been exposed to wide public attention for the first time. 

The fishing industry is an inherently vulnerable industry. Fishers chase a moving resource, are subjected to temperamental weather, and are bound by numerous policies to manage a public asset. With Covid-19 disrupting international supply chains and causing restaurant sales to plummet to zero, these underlying vulnerabilities have compounded. Alternative markets, such as direct sale to consumers, continue to be developed but are starting from an extremely low portion of sales. 

Beneath the surface there is another set of vulnerabilities less recognised, but just as important, that relate to the unique structure of labour in the fishing industry. Most fishers have no set salary. They have no statutory entitlement to paid leave or sick pay. They have no workplace private pension. They have no minimum wage. Few fishers are members of unions. Migrant labour is increasingly being used at sea, but without work visas to rely on. Fishers are going to sea without a financial safety net. This labour insecurity leads to psychological hardship matched only by the physical hardship of working at sea. By per capita fatalities, fishing is the most dangerous job in the country. 

Within the UK fishing industry many of these vulnerabilities are a well-known but unpopular topic of conversation. There is an overwhelming sense that this labour model is just ‘the way it’s always been done’. This is true, until it’s not. Core aspects of labour policy – from child labour laws to working hours, from minimum wages to women empowerment – are accepted across society but had to disrupt existing practices before they were seen as a societal norm. And it is not only our policies that change but also the world in which they are made. Neither shellfish exports to East Asia nor the web apps for direct sale fit the image of an unchanging industry. Even in a very strict sense the argument is not correct. In the 1970s, the deep sea fishing fleet in the UK operated with formalised labour and was organised into unions. 

The UK fishing industry should not be resigned to accept the current structure of fisheries labour as an inevitable matter of fact. Like all social systems, the systems that surround fisheries labour are constructed and can be reconstructed. As Covid-19 exposes underlying vulnerabilities in fisheries labour, now is the chance to reflect, to learn, and to change these systems. There is also a strong appetite for change as post-Brexit fisheries policy is being developed and a new future for the UK fishing industry is being discussed. Fishing labour must be part of this future. 

This briefing provides an overview of how fisheries labour is paid and organised and how this is situated in a broader economic context. Ideas are provided for new policies and structures onboard fishing vessels, in the self-organisation of the fishing industry, in fisheries management regulations, and over broader economy-wide policies. 

The conclusion of the paper finds:

There is a tremendous appetite for change in the UK fishing industry. The exit from the EU’s CFP has thrown open the doors to a reimagining of what the industry could look like. The UK government is thinking ambitiously as well, promising “a gold standard for sustainable fishing around the world” in its fisheries white paper.108 With a new era of change in UK fisheries why would, or why should, fisheries labour remain unchanged? 

Based on the research covered in this briefing, it is clear that addressing all of the issues associated with fisheries labour will require action across multiple areas, from changes in vessel labour practices including alternative payment models for crew and worker representation, to changes in how fishers organise including pooling resources and representative organisation, to changes in industry regulations including a new arrangement for migrant labour, formalised working conditions, and access for new entrants, to changes in wider economic policy including a Blue New Deal for coastal communities and a minimum income guarantee. 

More important than any one policy change, however, is a recognition that fishing labour should be part of our imagining of a new future for the UK fishing industry. Labour issues, and social sustainability more broadly, must sit alongside environmental and economic pillars for a truly sustainable system.


More can be read on the full report here

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New NEF Paper looks at Labour Vulnerability in the UK Fishing Industry

by editor time to read: 7 min