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Maritime protections: How the new Seafarers Wages Bill could protect workers at sea

P&O Ferries (Credit: John Peter Photography / Alamy Stock Photo)

7 min read

In response to P&O Ferries sacking nearly 800 employees in 2022, a new piece of legislation has been created to better protect seafarers. Sophie Church explores how the Seafarers’ Wages Act may dissuade ferry operators from following in P&O Ferries’ wake

“It is like any criminal enterprise; a burglar does not tell the homeowner or the shop owner that they are going to burgle their property… What P&O [Ferries] did that day, sponsored by the government of Dubai, was breaking the law.”

John Lansdown, aged 40, started working for P&O Ferries as an apprentice in 1998, and continued to work for the company on and off for 15 years. “I didn’t view it as a job; it was a way of life,” he says. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. We live with those people for half the year and they were in essence a second family.”

However, on 17 March 2022, Lansdown was told via Zoom call, along with 785 other seafarers, that he had lost his job and was to leave the ship – his home – immediately. “The company hired a third party agent to board the ship, along with handcuff-trained, balaclava-clad security teams,” he says. “We were all gathered together in the big food court on board the ship and told that was it.” 

As the news was relayed, Lansdown looked out onto the quayside, to the “poor buggers” who P&O Ferries had hired to replace the crew. “You’re thinking: these are people that are being exploited…they are not going to sack us and replace us with people who earn more money.” The outgoing crew, some of whom had worked for P&O Ferries for over 40 years, were given 30 minutes to pack up and leave the ship. 

The days that followed were punctuated by protests, Lansdown says. However, of the 786 seafarers who lost their jobs that day, he was the only employee to refuse to sign a non-disclosure agreement that secured a compensation pay out. Instead, Lansdown took P&O Ferries to court for unfair dismissal, and won.

A P&O Ferries source denied to The House that security teams who boarded the ships wore balaclavas, and said handcuffs were not used or authorised. They added that staff were offered enhanced settlement packages and support in future job searches. 

Despite Lansdown’s success in court, he blames trade union RMT’s national secretary Darren Procter for failing to prepare seafarers well enough for their impending dismissal. In 2021, he says Procter warned Dover ferry workers they were facing a threat to their jobs from Irish Ferries, who had announced they would now be operating the same Dover to Calais route. In 2005, Irish Ferries had fired and replaced workers, just as P&O Ferries went on to do. 

“By them arriving at Dover that would create a race to the bottom – an uneven playing field for other operators in which to operate,” says Lansdown, “so Darren Procter… said that we were going to launch a big campaign against them. Well, that never happened.”

The company hired a third party agent to board the ship, along with handcuff-trained, balaclava-clad security teams

In response, a spokesperson from RMT said that the union “led a campaign against the actions of Irish Ferries sacking workers and employing agency workers and it was front page of RMT News when Irish Ferries began operating in Dover”. They continued that “the union was unable to launch industrial action on these vessels as Irish Ferries workers were not RMT members”.

Martyn Gray, executive director of trade union Nautilus International, insists it could not have foreseen P&O Ferries’ actions. “We didn’t necessarily worry that it was going to go down the Irish Ferries route,” he says, “because Irish ferries… engaged with the trade unions in advance and let us know what was going on. So we thought… consultation will be starting here. We didn’t think termination will be starting here.”

The Seafarers’ Wages Act was passed in March 2023 in response to P&O Ferries’ behaviour. Now, ports have a legal duty to check that vessels coming into harbour are paying their workers an equivalent of the UK National Minimum Wage. Ferry operators breaking these rules face fines and refusal of entry into the harbour.

P&O Ferries protesters outside Westminster (Credit: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo)
P&O Ferries protesters outside Westminster (Credit: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo)

However, Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, says the Act is a “pale imitation of what could have been”. He explains that “at the outset, the government was saying the legislation would apply to those operators that called at UK ports 50 times a year once a week. So… they’ve narrowed the scope of the bill. So about 20 per cent of ferry operator services that regularly use UK ports – this is the government’s own estimate, I think it’s about 18 per cent – are outside the scope of the bill because they’re not calling at UK ports 120 times or more a year.”

Morris says that domestic workers employed to drive energy production in the UK’s continental shelf are also left unprotected by this legislation. “The seafarers who are servicing the wind turbines and the oil and gas installations… are all excluded from this,” he says. While Morris says the selling point of net-zero would be the creation of more than 100,000 jobs in the North Sea, he fears that “if those jobs aren’t going to be taken by UK seafarers, then we are just effectively offshoring the profits.”

However, maritime minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton vehemently pushes back against these claims. “We had two options,” she says. “We could make it simple and say: ‘Come to the UK 120 times a year, basically: you’ve got close ties, you are in the bucket.’ The alternative would have been to have some very complicated exclusion-inclusion type mechanism, which just simply wouldn’t have worked. There would have been people who tried to get around it all the time; we needed to make it simple. We wanted to catch those ferry operators, that’s what we did. And there was no watering down… I don’t accept any watering down at all.”

While Baroness Vere cannot comment on whether domestic workers will be put off from applying for offshore jobs, she recognises that “unless they are covered by the 120 [visits], they wouldn’t be covered by this bill”. However, she says that “the Department for Business and Trade is very cognisant of the importance of those workers. And… [will] be thinking about the applicability of National Minimum Wage to those workers.”

Still, Gray thinks one of the biggest problems is that the legislation only regulates ferry operators sailing within the 12 mile buffer of UK waters. “For those seafarers whilst they are in the UK, their wages, hourly rates are going to be more than doubled,” he says. “Our concern though, is will unscrupulous ship owners merely lower their working rate of pay when they are outside of UK territorial limits?”

Baroness Vere (Credit: James Boardman / Alamy Stock Photo)
Baroness Vere (Credit: James Boardman / Alamy Stock Photo)

However, the government has been conducting bilateral talks with France since last year to ensure workers are better protected in both British and French waters. “I have had numerous conversations with my French counterpart, the maritime minister in France, about their legislation, about enhanced protections for seafarers,” says Baroness Vere. “We are talking about the Seafarers Charter together, because I do believe maritime is such an international industry. We are stronger when we work with our international colleagues.”

While Baroness Vere says it is amazing that the legislation achieved royal assent in less than a year, Gray says there is work to do. “When you establish floors, they inadvertently tend to become ceilings in some instances,” he says. “So we want to make sure that always we are looking at trying to drive that floor up.”

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: “P&O Ferries is focused on meeting the needs of our customers, who want value for money, greener journeys and flexibility, and on protecting jobs for the long-term by returning our business to profitability. Significant changes made since the start of last year have saved this business, including the 2,200 jobs we secured in coastal communities across the UK. As a result, we are now serving the needs of our passenger and freight customers better than ever before.”

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