Seafarers Matter

Over the last few days we have seen the appalling behaviour of P&O Ferries as they implemented the policy of Firing and Rehiring. It then became apparent that after sacking 800 workers by a video call, P&O then hired agency crew for £1.81 an hour.

CEO of P&O ferries Peter Hebblethwaite was grilled by UK MPs about this strategy.

When the UK left the EU one of the Brexit ‘benefits’ was the complete erosion of workers rights. When P&O sacked all its British workers it was unable to do the same to crew who were EU nationals. They couldn’t be sacked in this way because P&O Ferries were well aware of EU employment rights.

In the same week as 800 workers lost their jobs by video call, Tory MPs either abstained or didn’t bother to turn up when UK Labour put forward an opposition day motion calling on the UK Government to take action against P&O Ferries’ parent company and demanding the reinstatement of 800 workers. And none of that came to anything because Opposition Day motions are not binding and government can ignore them.

It has been reported that UK Government Ministers actually knew that the 800 workers were to be fired before the company took that action.

Whilst all this is shocking it is not too long ago (2016) that Serco Northlink were getting away with paying crew on their freight service less than £4 an hour. The MV Helliar and MV Hildasay were being leased on a time charter from Seatruck for use by Serco Northlink Ferries (SNF) on the Northern Isles Ferry Services. An agreement was eventually reached in 2017 between  Transport Scotland, Seatruck and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), to transfer the MV Helliar and MV Hildasay to a bareboat charter by CMAL.

The Scottish Government Transport Minister at the time was Humza Yousaf. Commenting in 2017 he said:

“The current situation with crew being paid less than the minimum wage is unacceptable and as soon as I first became aware of it, I gave a direct commitment to meet with Seatruck in person.

“I’m very pleased to see an agreement in principle now in place to end this long running issue around the freight vessels serving the Northern Isles.

“The new charter basis will allow the wage issue to be resolved. Going forward, I can confirm that all crew members will be paid at least the minimum wage.

“It also means that the availability of suitable freighters to service these routes has been secured for the immediate future.

“There are still some details to be finalised, but we expect the change in charter agreement to be in place next month.

“This will no doubt be welcome news for islanders, crew members and unions. I commend the representatives of Seatruck, CMAL, NorthLink Ferries and Transport Scotland who worked hard to find a solution to a complicated situation.”

In a few days time Orkney will be welcoming the start of the Cruise ship season. It is possible that 200 cruise ships will visit the islands although as there have been serious outbreaks of Covid-19 on many cruise ships already this year that number may reduce.

Link: The UK Government advice on cruise ships

The UK Chamber of Shipping has published guidance for UK cruise operatorspassengers and seafarers on cruises during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were so many cases in cruise ships around the world in early 2022 that many were turned away from ports.

Over the holidays, passengers found themselves floating around on ships that couldn’t dock because foreign ports were turning them away or facing long, onboard quarantines before being allowed to come home, after testing positive for Covid. Dozens of cruises have been cancelled and some ports in the Caribbean and South America are turning ships away from making daily visits.

The Guardian 13.Jan 2022
The 130th Kirkwall Regatta 2019 and the cruise ship Costa Mediterranean Sea. Image credit Kenny Armet

But Covid-19 is not the only matter of concern with Cruise ships. Many of the ships that Orkney is ready to welcome are able to provide the luxury travel they do by paying the majority of their crew low wages. Business Insider revealed in 2019 the enormous gap in wages on board the luxury vessels. That is why when a cruise ship is in Kirkwall that you will see many of the crew in the charity shops or in Poundland.

UK seafarers have to be paid the minimum wage.  The National Minimum Wage (Offshore Employment) Order 1999 (SI1128) came into force on 1 October 2020.

It extended the right to the minimum wage to:

  • all seafarers and employed fishers working in the UK territorial sea, regardless of where they ordinarily work or where a ship is registered
  • to those working in the UK part of the continental shelf (with the exception of workers on ships exercising innocent passage or the right of transit passage)

In 2021, it is estimated that UK nationals accounted for 16% of the 103,590 seafarers active at sea working for companies within the membership of the UK Chamber of Shipping.

Seafarers active at sea (CoS members) by type and nationality, 2021

Seafarers global supply: The countries supplying the largest proportion of seafarers.

More data can be found here: Seafarers in the UK Shipping Industry: 2021

Pay and conditions for seafarers differs considerably around the world and there is a complex chain of supplying agency workers. What happened in the UK with P&O Ferries is a wake up call to all workers and those who are concerned with safety at sea.

Fiona Grahame

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , , , , ,

5 replies »

  1. Apart from anything else – and there are so many things wrong with this situation – the people who work a ship, need to know the ship. Otherwise safety is jeopardized.

    Not to mention efficiency.

    Another bit of the madness.

    Why is that man still in Number 10?

  2. This shabby affair is nothing to do with U K leaving EU, there has been no derogation from EU employment rights. There is a non regression clause in place under which employment rights existing before 31st december2020 were not reduced . Blaming brexit for this action is a red herring. Any one who has ever been involved in a divorce case will know there is what is right , what is wrong and what is legal, often three different things. The people involved will need to take stock , they are unlikely to get more money than the offer through the courts. and this will probably end up being the union position .

  3. If someone from a law firm mentions Brexit to be a “red herring”, they will view it from a specific point… and they might even be right… in strictly legal terms (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/mar/18/po-ferries-sackings-brexit-uk-eu-employment-law). So I assume the red herring was a quote taken from Ms London?
    But Brexit still has to do with this whole affair, albeit indirectly. All ferry companies did experience Brexit effects (but the ones in Europe were supported by their governments as other businesses too) and the last minute so-called Brexit deal did nothing to alleviate issues, they remain unsolved to this day for hauliers, businesses and many others. This has affected the business and profitability of the ferries. Obviously the UK government’s mishandling of the pandemic added to business impacts. Would P & O have gone so far to protect their interests if all these impacts would not have been so bad? Perhaps not. Such disgraceful behaviour is not common business practice.
    But the UK government made a mistake too. It was claimed that P & O received furlough payments. Why did nobody in the government think of making a temporary job guarantee (for 1,2 or 3 years) a condition for paying out furlough payments, at least applying to larger companies? Because, as always, they were hoping, the “market” would sort everything out.

    UK employment law has never had a good reputation. And even if the UK has still left some EU rules in place, it probably will in the future not be able to afford keeping at least some standards at comparative levels as they are in many EU countries where they are much higher. This goes far beyond redundancy protection.
    Anyway, this was about redundancy and apparently, who was employed under Dutch, French or Irish contracts and employment law, was not fired.

    https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/union-says-60-irish-employees-among-the-800-crew-sacked-by-p-o-ferries-1.4831386

    https://www.connexionfrance.com/article/French-news/French-union-calls-for-government-action-over-P-O-sacking-of-800-UK-staff

    Whilst the sackings are not due to Brexit but a ruthless management attitude in hard times, I would argue that there are (not yet) any loopholes open but could well open in due course. Brexit came at a cost: a cost of years of uncertainty since the referendum, “operational” costs due to a deal which is not really worth the paper it is written on and more disasters which followed.

    And some irony: exactly the undercutting of wages and that this should not take place etc. was an argument in the Brexit campaign (https://www.newstatesman.com/comment/2022/03/po-proves-brexit-has-failed-on-its-own-terms) and I guess we will see much more of this in the future.
    Brexit plays into all this in different ways and it’ll be decades until all the damages done by it will have been remedied, if it happens at all.

  4. Blaming brexit for this affair is the reddest of herrings, in 2006 Irish ferries replaced crews with east european workers and of the original 543 crew, 495 took redundancy terms . EU membership did not protect those jobs. I note in the previous comment the new statesman link also has a red herring floating about in it. Just out of curiosity googled brexit and red herring and there were over two million results. some way to go before it beats my favourite cliche “SNP transparency” with over twenty two million results.

  5. You may want to read again: I did not blame Brexit for the sackings. I blame Brexit as being one of the issues which caused uncertainties and associated economic/financial pressures which may have – together with other pressures – prompted P & O to act (disgracefully) to remain profitable or as they claim ‘viable’.
    Also, we are discussing 2022 here, not 2006. Replacing staff with cheaper staff, unfortunately has a history, including in the EU. Sadly, this is how our sick global system works. And yes, 2006 was a very similar situation, however, as far as I recall, it did not happen out of the blue without any warning but was the more common way and unions were involved when the outsourcing threat came. (It was still morally not ok, I think we agree here.)
    And I would like to stress, that 2005/2006 the economic situation was different. The financial crisis had not yet happened, there was not such an accumulation of crises one after the other as people experience now.
    What P & O has done now, comes at a time of crises and severe hardship. And this makes it worse.

    Since you like googling… I recommend to search for Brexit and disaster, you may even find more than 2 million entries. What this proves? As much as your google results. Nothing. Because you’ll also get millions of entries when you google long johns and dandelions… or you could google Tories and scandals… once you are done with the SNP.