The UK government is pushing ahead with its new legislation which 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 the massive layoff of crews by P&O Ferries in March 2022 replacing them with contract workers, the shipping industry remains critical of the bill, however, saying it has loopholes and could negatively impact other parts of commercial shipping and port operations.
The Seamen’s Wages Bill received its first reading in the House of Lords on July 6 after being announced in May during the Queen’s Speech which set the priorities for the new legislative session. The project focuses on ships 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 restrict the legislation so as not to cover the entire commercial shipping industry, but it is unclear whether it would cover vessels such as commercial fishing vessels which operate from the UK.
“We are closing a loophole which allowed seafarers who work on ships which regularly call on UK ports to be paid below the equivalent of the UK national minimum wage for the simple fact that the ship is operating an international service,” said the government by describing the invoice. “The changes mean that thousands of seafarers entering the UK on a regular basis will receive fairer pay, putting the UK ahead of all EU states in its pay protections.”
The Bill was specifically drafted in response to the broad public condemnation and appeals by unions and MPs after P&O replaced 800 people without notice. As drafted, the bill allows port authorities to deny access to services calling regularly at UK ports that do not pay their workers a rate equivalent to the UK national minimum wage for time spent in UK waters.
“Fair pay for seafarers is vital and the new laws we presented to Parliament today send a clear signal to operators that the UK will not let seafarers be made redundant by rogue bosses,” said the Maritime Minister Robert Courts. He pointed out that the draft had been tabled in the House of Lords after extensive consultation with industry on how to quickly shape new seafarer wage protection laws.
“Despite the government’s good intentions, this legislation in its current form would not end the exploitation of seafarers in our waters,” said Nautilus International Secretary General Mark Dickinson. The union points to loopholes that could lead ferry operators to “skip the port to avoid having to pay seafarers the minimum wage”. Nautilus is calling for significant changes to the bill to achieve the desired outcome while highlighting its proposed “fair ferry strategy,” which expands collective bargaining, adds penalties for practices such as firing and rehiring, and the ability to sanction operators.
As the bill is currently drafted, compliance monitoring would be split between the ports, the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency and the Department of Transport. The British Ports Association has strongly criticized the role of ports, saying it is not a core competence of ports, predicting it will hurt their operations. He called on government agencies to have exclusive authority for enforcement.
“We are clear Port Authorities are not the appropriate body to ensure compliance, especially as some ferry operators are also Port Authorities. The bill effectively asks certain operators ‘to score their own homework,’” Dickinson added in response to the release of the bill presented to parliament.
As the legislation continues to make its way through Parliament, the courts have also updated inquiries 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 is continuing.