“Isaac hasn’t seen his family for three years. He’s not allowed to work. He’s doing his best, but it’s hard to stay positive. Every couple of weeks, I take him out for a trip. He confided in me one time, ‘I don’t know where I’d be now without Stella Maris’,” said Steve Willows, Stella Maris’ Regional Port Chaplain in Immingham, Lincolnshire. Stella Maris (formerly known as Apostleship of the Sea) is the Catholic charity supporting seafarers and fishers in the UK and worldwide.
Isaac is one of a growing number of fishers who has become a victim of modern slavery. According to the International Labour Organisation, migrant workers in particular are vulnerable to being deceived and coerced by brokers and recruitment agencies and forced to work on board vessels under the threat of force or by means of debt bondage.
Isaac (not his real name), left Ghana in 2020 and, because there were few job opportunities, he paid £1,000 to an agent for a UK fishing contract.
The moment he stepped on board the trawler, he sensed trouble. He and four other men were put to work immediately, with no training or safety equipment. They worked until midnight – and were woken at 4 am to start again.
With each gruelling day that passed, things got worse. “There was no drinking water on board and never enough food,” explained Isaac. “Some of the crew shouted racist abuse at us, and we worked so many hours there was no time to cook or even wash.”
Steve first met Isaac in 2021 after Deacon Nick O’Neill, Stella Maris’ Senior Area Port Chaplain for the south of England and Wales, became aware of his plight and that of four other seafarers, and alerted the police and other agencies. Stella Maris found the men a place to stay, fed them, provided clean clothes, and helped them navigate endless meetings and paperwork.
“Isaac felt shamed and broken by the cruel treatment he had received,” said Steve. “Worse, he was not paid anything until he and the other fishers were rescued off the ship and we and the police got involved. It’s hard to believe this could happen off the coast of England.”
Stella Maris has launched a ground-breaking initiative aimed at helping to tackle modern slavery in UK ports and the UK maritime sector. A series of workshops in six ports (Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool and Portsmouth) have highlighted the issue and brought together stakeholders from ports, shipping, law enforcement agencies, anti-trafficking bodies, and other welfare agencies.
“The workshops are insightful and essential for those wishing to better understand the risks and issues caused by modern slavery,” said participant James Riddick, Group Head of Supply Chain at Peel Ports.
Stella Maris CEO/National Director Tim Hill MBE said that Stella Maris is in a prime position to tackle modern slavery. “Stella Maris’ port chaplains and volunteer ship visitors are often first responders in cases of modern slavery within the port setting, and this puts us in a perfect position to be a galvanising force in tackling this issue.
“We have set up a ‘Cross Port Anti-Slavery Steering Group’ with a first meeting to be held at the end of January. The group will seek to increase joined-up working across ports in the country and boost collaboration among the various maritime bodies and organisations to address and root-out modern slavery.
“Stella Maris’ excellent ongoing partnership with port operators, shipping companies, P&I clubs, enforcement authorities and anti-trafficking organisations helps us to provide appropriate, timely and effective intervention and support to fishers and seafarers affected by modern slavery. Ultimately this is all about working together and drawing upon our respective strengths and expertise to support those in need.”
On 8 February, the Catholic Church will commemorate the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Sudan when young. As this Feast Day approaches us, let us remember all those affected by modern slavery and human trafficking, including those trapped and exploited on fishing vessels around the world.
To find out more about Stella Maris’ work, or to make a donation to its Lent Appeal about tackling modern slavery, go to www.stellamaris.org.uk/lent