Lord Tunnicliffe: The government is not doing enough to give seafarers real security at work
When P&O Ferries fired 800 staff without notice, it was not just a betrayal of the workers who kept this country stocked through the pandemic, but of every taxpayer who kept that business afloat.
Yet when the news broke, ministers seemed caught out by the nationwide outrage – even instructing their MPs to abstain on Labour’s motion condemning P&O. It has since emerged they knew about the sackings in advance, which might explain the reluctance to step in.
Months later, Boris Johnson’s zombie government now claim they want to prevent a repeat of the scandal and have brought forward the Seafarers’ Wages Bill to the Lords. But ministers are mistaken if they think this paltry piece of legislation is enough to give workers security at work.
The government initially suggested it would bring forward a broader Harbours Bill, which seafarers had hoped would give certainty on pensions, roster patterns and other issues of contention. Instead, we have a narrow piece of legislation that only deals with wages and leaves out a whole host of commitments from the nine-point plan announced earlier this month. Ministers have been keen to stress that more protections will be brought forward in secondary legislation but there can be only one reason why these are not included on the face of this current Bill: to avoid scrutiny.
There is a real risk that mistreatment of seafarers would see them start to leave operators in their droves
Even on the narrow issue of wages, the legislation falls short of doing what the government claims it has set out to achieve. Ministers say the Bill will mean ferry workers have the equivalent of minimum wage for the time they spend in British waters. But given that much of Europe has no minimum wage, this could see workers earnings average out lower.
The Bill also creates huge loopholes for employers to escape paying the minimum wage at all. As currently drafted, only vessels which visit 120 days a year will be included – so routes could alter their timetables. There are also other glaring problems, including the possibility of ferries docking at different ports in a calendar year to escape paying a fair wage. It also seems the Secretary of State will have the power to exclude certain workers from the protections.
P&O should represent a line in the sand but this Bill smacks of timidity. In a country where other industries are struggling to find staff, there is a real risk that mistreatment of seafarers would see them start to leave operators in their droves. These workers spend nights away from their families and do thanklessly long-shifts - often on low wages. Ministers should be ensuring they have real security at work and recognise that a failure to that will impact on more than just the operators. Staff shortages on UK ferries could see the chaos at our airports this summer repeated at our ports.
In the Second Reading debate, I will call for seafarers to have the respect they deserve after helping to keep the country stocked during the pandemic. If the government does not improve the Bill, Labour will table amendments to ensure these key workers are entitled to a fair wage and have wider workplace protections. We will also seek a crack-down on rogue employers, and to stop a P&O Ferries type scandal ever happening again.
Lord Tunnicliffe is a Labour peer and shadow transport spokesperson in the Lords.
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