LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A British Catholic charity has launched a new initiative aimed to help tackle modern slavery in UK ports and the UK maritime sector.

Stella Maris – also known as the Apostleship of the Sea – supports the ship industry in the UK and worldwide, and its port chaplains and volunteer ship visitors are often first responders in cases of modern slavery in the port setting.

“This puts us in a perfect position to be a force in tackling this issue,” said Tim Hill, the national director of Stella Maris.

“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 organizations to address and root-out modern slavery,” he said.

Stella Maris has ongoing partnerships with port operators, shipping companies, mariner clubs, enforcement authorities and anti-trafficking organizations. The association says this helps them provide appropriate, timely and effective intervention and support to fishing industry employees 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,” Hill said.

In 2019, the British government pledged to lead the way in addressing modern day slavery concerns within the fishing industry with the aim of eradicating it.

However, Stella Maris says modern slavery can take many different forms and can be difficult to identify, particularly within the port and maritime settings.

“In the maritime sector when we talk about modern slavery, we are normally referring to forced labor, where people are coerced or threatened into working against their will, usually under threat of punishment. In addition, as transport hubs, there is also the risk of human trafficking occurring in the port environment,” a Stella Maris representative told Crux.

The representative noted that people in the fishing industry may be out at sea for months at a time, far from public scrutiny, and limited access can make it challenging to identify potential victims. They may also be hesitant to speak up due to language barriers or fear of retribution.

“Hence the reason for the Stella Maris modern slavery identification workshops held last year which were a good first step in creating awareness about the problem. In fact, participants reported a 19 percent increase in confidence in their organization’s ability to spot the signs of modern slavery after they had attended a workshop,” the Sella Maris official said.

Steve Willows, Stella Maris’s Regional Port Chaplain in Immingham, Lincolnshire, told the story of “Isaac” – not his real name – who is one of a growing number of fishers who has become a victim of modern slavery.

Isaac left Ghana in 2020 and paid over $1,000 to an agent for a UK fishing contract. However, he sensed trouble when he arrived and was forced to begin working before receiving any training.

“Isaac felt shamed and broken by the cruel treatment he had received,” Willows said.

“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,” he said.

Isaac said there was no drinking water on board of the boat and never enough food.

“Some of the crew shouted racist abuse at us, and we worked so many hours there was no time to cook or even wash,” he told Stella Maris.

Willows said Isaac has not seen his family for three years and is not allowed to work in the UK.

“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,’” Willows said.

The Stella Maris representative told Crux that due to limited access at ports, it is often not those with official reporting responsibilities who come into first contact with victims of modern slavery.

“That is why it is really important to make sure all frontline organizations who come into contact with potential victims of modern slavery are aware of the signs and know the right people to refer to and the procedures to follow,” the official said.

“Collaboration and communication between all stakeholders in the port environment is key and the newly formed steering group is working together to come up with tools to overcome the key challenges faced by the maritime sector that the workshops identified,” the official continued.

“Ensuring seafarers and fishers know what ‘good’ work looks like is also important. That is why we recently partnered with Waitrose [a leading British supermarket form] to produce and promote training videos for fishers coming to the UK which explain their labor rights and give practical advice,” the Stella Maris representative said.

“Communities living near ports can help by being aware of the problem, keeping their ears and eyes open, and if they see something that they think is suspicious, they should call the police or modern slavery helpline.”