Fishing exploited migrant labour

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A representative for a fishing industry employment agency in Vesterålen in Northern Norway has been caught on tape blatantly telling Romanian workers how they could illegally work excessive overtime but be paid less than their contracts stipulated. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) aired a tape of the highly unorthodox exchange on national radio Monday morning.

Norwegian fishing boats are catching lots of cod this winter, and now need more customers for it all. PHOTO: Norwegian Seafood Council

Norway’s fishing industry has been booming in recent years and still has some scenic charm, but foreign workers can face exploitation. PHOTO: Norwegian Seafood Council

The exchange, between a group of Romanian workers who had arrived last January in Vesterålen and a representative of employment agency JM Skaret, was secretly taped by one of the workers and delivered to NRK. It provides unique insight into how easily foreign workers in Norway can be allowed or forced to work more and be paid less than Norwegian workers. The tape was revealed just a week after a survey showed that as many as 40 percent of those catching and processing fish think it’s acceptable to underreport the size of the catch.

Labour union officials, also upset over other ways that migrant workers can be exploited during the busy winter fishing season, said some employers offer much lower pay than Skaret, and noted how workers can be poorly housed and must pay thousands of kroner a month just to rent a bed in a barrack. “This is an embarrassment for Norway as a nation, and a shame for the industry,” Hans Johan Dahl of one leading union (Norsk nærings- og nytelsesmiddelarbeiderforbund) told NRK.

Norway’s huge fishing industry has come to rely on foreign workers willing to settle in remote areas along the coast and on seasonal migrant labour. Many workers are pleased and feel well-treated. Others accept exploitation because of fears they’ll otherwise be sent home with nothing, as in the case of the group of Romanian workers in Vesterålen last year.

Highly revealing tape
The tape aired on NRK Monday features the representative for JM Skaret, in broken English and often using foul language, telling the workers how they could get around labour regulations in Norway, subtly suggesting they’d lose their jobs if the excessive overtime was revealed to authorities. “If they know you work 18 hours they will tell us to shut this down in a day and stop this,” Jørn Skaret said on tape. He noted, though, that “you don’t like to stay here sitting in this house, you want hours and hours, and then you go home in May.” Excessive hours, Skaret added, would be put in “a kind of bank” and paid as “bonus, and thank you for being here and help(ing) us.” The total amount paid, however, would be at a rate less than than the rate agreed in their contracts.

Skaret suggested there were ways they could work up to 18 hours a day during the  fishing season. In return, though, they would receive around NOK 135 instead of the NOK 152 written in their contracts.

“But remember if somebody asks you, ‘how much work do you have?'” Skaret counseled the workers, ” ‘never more than 12 hours.'”

When one worker objected to the arrangement, which Skaret explained would involve some creative accounting on their payslips, Skaret countered that “I thought everybody would understand this.” He warned them that there was “so much control of this,”suggesting that other unorthodox employment methods were risker. “It they (the authorities) see (say), ‘what the (expletive deleted) do you pay this guy, two months after he leaves.’ That’s what some other people do, and they get caught and they have big problems.”

Illegal indeed
Both the pay rates and accounting of actual hours worked, as described by Skaret, are illegal, according to Kristin Alsos, a labour researcher and lawyer at the research institute FAFO in Oslo. She listened to the tape and told NRK that Skaret wanted the workers to work more than Norwegian law allows and to avoid minimum wage levels set through Norwegian labour negotiations. “On their payslips, it will look like they received tariff pay, but in reality they received lower pay because they have worked more hours,” she said. “That’s illegal.”

NRK has seen both the work schedules and payslips for the workers, and reported that all received between NOK 133 and 136 per hour for workdays up to 18 hours long. After the workers appealed to a local union, they received backpay for last year’s fishing season but NRK reported none returned to Norway this year.

Neither Skaret nor the manager of JM Skaret, Astrid Klo, would agree to an interview, but Skaret wrote in an email to NRK that he was sorry he proposed lower pay than agreed and that it was based on a “misunderstanding.” Klo wrote in an email that an “error” in their accounts had led to the workers receiving pay for fewer hours than worked. She denied that JM Skaret tried to camouflage actual hours worked from labour authorities.

“I don’t try to screw anybody,” Skaret was also taped telling the workers, but then he added, “(expletive deleted) 20 million people wants to work (here). Don’t try to take anything more.”

To listen to the taped exchange of the Norwegian employment agency representative talking to the foreign workers, click here (external link to NRK’s website) and then on the audio icon under the top photo. Berglund