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What fishing can teach us about working conditions in the UK

Fishing might seem like a unique job. But it's only the most extreme example of the dismal landscape facing workers.


2020 isn’t a good year for workers. But while grim unemployment forecasts might have been caused by Covid-19, the dismal landscape facing workers is nothing new. There’s been a concerted assault on the rights gained by the union movement over the past four decades, through an onslaught of anti-union legislation, outsourcing, and insecure jobs.

What makes 2020 notable is how sharply this has come into focus under the Covid-19 crisis. While the rest of the country stays home to protect themselves, low-paid workers have no choice but to go out to work during the pandemic, while chronic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) put key workers’ lives at risk. The Covid crisis has shown us that the decline in workers’ rights is a public health issue.

As we found in a recent NEF report, fishing, the most dangerous profession in the UK’, is a sector where we see some of the worst consequences of the downward trend in working conditions. Atrocious working conditions are not unique to the current pandemic, or to specific industries. But the fishing sector can provide us with some of the most extreme examples and illuminate the consequences of the general decline in workers’ rights.

No guaranteed work

Fishers don’t have a secure income, which forces them onto a financial knife edge. As we found in our report, fishers have no guaranteed work and no minimum wage. Fishing is heavily contingent on the weather, so sourcing work is extremely unpredictable. Charities like Fishermen’s Mission and the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society give fishers support with drug and alcohol misuse, welfare, and debt support, which shows the ramifications of financial instability.

But an unstable income is not confined to those whose work is weather-dependent: it is a trend replicated across the economy. Hiding behind pre-Covid high employment rates is a picture of increasingly casualised, precarious labour with inadequate wages and little financial security. Last year the TUC reported that nearly one in 10 workers engage in platform’ work in the gig economy (like working as an Uber- or delivery-driver) once a week, to top up their incomes. Debt, insecurity, and a lack of worker control are not unique to the dangerous profession of fishing, but are endemic across the economy.

No sick pay

Share fishers (self-employed fishers who are paid a share of the profits of the boat they work on) are not even entitled to the meagre provisions of statutory sick pay. Fishing is a dangerous profession where workers’ health is likely to come under greater risk. Alongside the dangers of capsizing and exposure to harsh weather, Seafarers UK found that 58% of fishermen reported no basic facilities, like hot water or heating, on board their vessel. They also found that minor’ injuries sustained on the job — such as the loss of fingers — were common. Fishers working in the most dangerous profession’ are both more predisposed to sickness„ and unable to take time off sick because they have no financial safety net.

While losing fingers might not be a regular feature of many jobs, being denied sick pay is common. Workers in the growing gig economy, from plumbers to Deliveroo drivers, aren’t able to access sick pay, meaning they cannot afford’ the luxury of being ill. Unions like the IWGB have worked hard to fight for workers like these at employment tribunals, but we need more economy-wide worker power to change the legislation so that all workers can get sick pay.

Being locked into working when sick during a global pandemic can have tragic results. High profile incidents of Uber drivers dying from Covid-19, as a result of unclear guidelines and inadequate PPE, are one example. Many workers who do qualify for sick pay are only entitled to statutory sick pay which, at just £94.25 per week, is among the lowest in Europe. Employers’ failure to adequately cover their workers’ sick pay is a public health concern.

Substandard health and safety

Scandals around the lack of social distancing or PPE at work during the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need for proper workplace health and safety standards, overseen by trained union representatives. But these standards go beyond providing PPE during a pandemic — and in the race to slash red tape’ in post-Brexit Britain, they will become even more vital.

At sea, an unsafe workplace has grim results. Fishing is seven times more dangerous than the next most dangerous job in the UK. Fishers’ workplace is their vessel at sea, which is often unstable and hazardous. Between the lack of basic facilities aboard, and the exposure to cold and wet conditions, occupational hazards abound.

What’s more, Seafarers UK identifies a culture of bravado’ amongst fishers, which frames the lack of protection for workers as a hyper-masculine conception of courage. Not limited to the fishing industry, this is an effective narrative to boost the profits of big firms through pouring scorn on the modern’ insistence on red tape’ — rather than recognising regulations as tools to protect workers from exploitation.

While it might be the picture on larger, lucrative vessels, the profit incentive is not always so straightforward in fishing as in other sectors in the economy. Many employers in the industry operate on smaller boats with minimal profit margins. Nevertheless, framing worker protections as an unnecessary annoyance which is not in the interests of workers is a shared problem across the economy.

Lack of training and skills

Fishing demands very specific knowledge and skills — and a lack of these can have fatal consequences. Employers have a responsibility to provide basic training and skills so workers can carry out their jobs properly and safely. While training courses exist, they can be very difficult for fishers to attend due to lack of spare time, difficulty travelling to the training centres, and concerns about loss of income.

While the experiences of fishers are again an extreme example, a lack of proper training is not unique to the industry. A third of employees in Britain have either not received workplace training in the last five years or have never had any such training. Youth unemployment figures indicate that entry-level job applicants often lose out to workers with more experience and a ready made’ skillset. A lack of training and skills development leaves young people vulnerable: it slows down workplace progression and pay increases and in the worst cases puts workers at risk.

Picture the future… work beyond 2020

This picture of the working world in 2020 was not inevitable. It’s been caused by a managed decline of worker power through decades of anti-union legislation. While most workers would look to the jobs of fishers as one of extreme hardship, many share similar experiences, albeit with less severe impacts. While workers are concerned with improving their pay and conditions, businesses prioritise profit, productivity, and organisational sustainability. Understanding this conflict of interest is central to the union movement, alongside recognising that a workforce with a collective voice is more powerful.

While this workforce power has been weakened, with union membership at record lows, lockdown has made it clear how vital unions are. Union membership is showing signs of increasing, and public support for unions appears to be looking up. The union movement must act fast to make the most of this support, and mobilise those who rely on it. An industry like fisheries shows the fatal consequences of driving down decent, safe working conditions.

Demanding better pay and conditions at work, and government legislation to back it up, needs unions — for their principles of collectivity and their understanding of power in the workplace. If we want to reverse the downward trend of working conditions in the UK, unionised workers must be at the forefront of that change.

Image: Pexels

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