UK Advances Seafarer Minimum Wage Bill While Unions and Ports Object

UK minimum wage legislation for seafarers
Union members staged numerous protests after P&O's dismissal of 800 crewmembers (RMT photo)

Published Jul 7, 2022 9:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK Government is moving forward with its new legislation that would require segments of the shipping industry to pay seafarers at levels at least equivalent to the UK National Minimum Wage. Seen as a political response to P&O Ferries’ mass firing of crews in March 2022 replacing them with contract workers, the shipping industry however remains critical of the draft legislation saying it has gaps and could negatively impact other parts of commercial shipping and port operations.

The draft of the “Seafarers’ Wages Bill” received its first reading in the House of Lords on July 6 after being announced in May during the Queen’s Speech that set the priorities for the new legislative session. The draft focuses on vessels and services that call at UK ports at least every 72 hours on average, or more than 120 times a year. Vessels meeting these criteria would be subject to the requirements. This is an attempt to narrow the legislation so as not to cover the broader commercial shipping industry, but it is unclear if it would cover vessels such as commercial fishing boats that operate from the UK.

“We are closing a loophole that allowed seafarers who work on vessels that regularly serve UK ports, to be paid below an equivalent to the UK National Minimum Wage for the simple fact that the vessel operates an international service,” the government said in describing the bill. “The changes mean that thousands of seafarers regularly entering the UK will receive fairer pay, putting the UK ahead of every EU state in its pay protections.”

The bill was specifically written in response to the broad public condemnation and calls by unions and members of Parliament after P&O replaced 800 people with no notice. As the bill is written, it enables port authorities to deny access to services calling regularly at UK ports that do not pay their workers equivalent rate to the UK National Minimum Wage for time spent in UK waters.

“Fair pay for seafarers is a must and the new laws we’ve introduced in Parliament today send a clear signal to operators that the UK will not let seafarers be priced out of their jobs by rogue bosses,” said Maritime Minister Robert Courts. He emphasized that the draft was laid before the House of Lords after extensive consultation with the industry on how to rapidly shape new laws on seafarer pay protection.

“Despite good intentions from government, this legislation in its current form would not end the exploitation of seafarers in our waters,” responded Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson. The union points to loopholes that could lead ferry operators to “port hop to avoid having to pay seafarers the minimum wage.” Nautilus is calling for significant amendments to the bill to achieve the desired outcome while highlighting its proposed “Fair Ferries Strategy,” which expands collective bargaining, adds penalties for practices such as fire and rehire, and the ability to sanction operators.

As the bill is currently drafted, the oversight for compliance would be divided between the ports, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and the Department for Transportation. The British Ports Association has been a strong critic of the ports’ role saying it is not a core competency of the ports predicting it would hurt their operations. He called for the government agencies to have the sole authority for the enforcement.

“We are clear, port authorities are not the appropriate body to ensure compliance, not least as some ferry operators are also port authorities. The bill is effectively asking some operators ‘to mark their own homework’,” added Dickinson responding to the release of the draft presented to Parliament. 

While the legislation continues to work its way through Parliament, Courts also updated on the investigations into P&O Ferries. He announced that the Insolvency Service’s criminal and civil investigation into the circumstances of the dismissals made by P&O Ferries continues.