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How the socio-cultural practices of fishing obscure micro-disciplinary, verbal, and psychological abuse of migrant fishers in North East Scotland


In recent decades, part of the UK fishing industry has become increasingly reliant on migrant crew, to fill local crew shortages. With restricted immigration status and invisibility on vessels out at sea, crews are vulnerable to both extreme and mundane forms of control and exploitation. Although the UK is legally addressing the potential for trafficking and forced labour across the fishing industry, more needs to be done to address the potential for micro-disciplinary, psychological, and verbal abuse of non-European Economic Area (non-EEA) crew which remains difficult to evidence. This requires recognition of how non-EEA migrant fishers are made vulnerable by the intersection of socio-cultural practices of fishing with a visa system that anchors immigration status to named vessels, limits movements, and makes changing employers or raising complaints difficult. Taking the 2020 prosecution of a Scottish skipper for abusing Filipino crew as a discursive starting point, we explore how differences in local interpretation of fishing relationships, by skippers and non-EEA crew, reveal limited agreement over what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Drawing on fieldwork in North East Scotland, we argue that the white noise of coarse language, ‘alpha male’ behaviours, and narratives of risk and responsibility that dominate local fishing practice, when combined with scant appreciation of how non-EEA migrant experiences differ from other crew, can serve to obscure migrant crew’s experiences of maltreatment. Greater attention is consequently required to vernacularise migrant crew rights, by making them locally meaningful so that both skippers and crew adequately recognise their responsibility to safeguard non-EEA crew.

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    In August 2008, prawn trawler Vision II caught fire in the harbour, killing Rimants Venckus (50) from Latvia, and Ramilito Capangpangan Calipayan (33) and Benjamin Rosello Potot (33) from the Philippines. Reynaldo Benitez (29) from the Philippines also died that month falling from the Fraserburgh prawn trawler New Dawn while at sea. BBC News online. Memorial held for dead fishermen. 13 September 2008

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    See also Chantavanich (2020) for further criticism of legal trafficking frameworks where the victims (male) and type of crimes do not easily fit.

  3. 3.

    The Fishermen’s Mission is a fishermen’s charity that provides emergency support alongside practical, financial, spiritual, and emotional care to fishermen and their families. They have significant involvement with the migrant fishing crews in Fraserburgh and Peterhead and are often the first point of contact for migrant crew reporting problems. The Mission chaplains often mediate to resolve issues between skippers and crew.

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    Stanford (1998) and Stevenson (2011) attribute this partially to the fishing and oil industry where there is a higher tolerance of risk taking and where long periods at sea were followed by crews returning with big wages in hand, but it also echoes a wider drug problem effecting Scotland at the time triggered by economic downturn.

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    Name has been changed.

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    Name has been changed.

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    Indeed, reports about accidents at sea frequently specify that it is the responsibility of the skipper to closely monitor and supervise crew, regardless of how experienced the crew are. See, for example, MAIB (2021a) on the fatal accident of an Indonesian crewman on the Olivia Jean in Aberdeen.

  8. 8.

    The annual MAIB report for 2018 pointed out that while an average of 6.44 fishermen fatalities a year in the UK industry (from 2010 to 2018) may appear low, when this is adjusted to show deaths per 100,000 workers, fishing at a rate of 62 fatalities per 100,000 workers considerably surpassed the second most dangerous UK profession, recycling, with a rate of just 10.26 fatalities per 100,000 workers (MAIB 2019). However, while 5 fisher deaths were recorded for 2019, in 2020 this number had dropped to just 2. It is still too early to tell if this reduction represents a new trend but it is possible that significant improvements to safety and campaigns are beginning to have an impact (MAIB 2021b).

  9. 9.

    In 2020, one hundred and thirty-nine vessels over 10 m were registered to the Fraserburgh and Peterhead district (Marine Scotland 2020).

  10. 10.

    Recent studies of migrant care worker have looked at the affective aspects of work and kinning processes to problematises the classical definition of an employer–employee relationship devoid of emotional ties. Baldassar, Ferrero and Portis (2017).


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We would like to thank all the research participants who graciously gave us their time to explain the complexities of fishing in North East Scotland. We would also like to thank Nitya Rao for her insightful comments and encouragement reviewing drafts of this paper.


Funding for this research was provided by a grant (grant ref ES/R010404/1) from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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Correspondence to Natalie Djohari.

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Djohari, N., White, C. How the socio-cultural practices of fishing obscure micro-disciplinary, verbal, and psychological abuse of migrant fishers in North East Scotland. Maritime Studies (2021).

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  • Migrant labour
  • Abuse
  • Fishing
  • Labour rights
  • Coastal transformations