Ports and unions criticise Shapps’ plan for law on seafarers’ minimum wage

Ports and unions have cast doubt on the viability of legislation announced in the Queens Speech to ensure P&O and other ferry operators pay seafarers the minimum wage.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said that the new bill, introduced in response to P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 crew, showed that the government would “stop at nothing” to ensure fair pay.

However, the British Ports Association (BPA) said it was “unclear” that the legislation would work and said they could not enforce it, while the TUC dismissed the plans as unworkable.

The Department for Transport said tens of thousands of seafarers would have to be paid the equivalent of the UK national minimum wage, currently £9.50 an hour, under provisions in the planned Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) bill.

The legislation will ban ferries that flout the pay rules from docking at UK ports. Talks are continuing with EU countries including France, Germany and Ireland to ensure routes between the countries become “minimum wage corridors”, guaranteeing minimum pay to seafarers operating them.

Shapps said: “We will stop at nothing to make sure seafarers in UK ports are being paid fairly. P&O Ferries’ disgraceful actions do not represent the principles of our world-leading maritime sector, and changing the law on seafarer pay protection is a clear signal to everyone that we will not tolerate economic abuse of workers.

“We will protect all seafarers regularly sailing in and out of UK ports and ensure they are not priced out of a job. Ferry operators which regularly call at UK ports will face consequences if they do not pay their workers fairly.”

The government said it would consult closely with the ports and maritime sector on the scope of the new laws and enforcement measures over the next four weeks. Other vessels beyond ferries could be included. Cruise operators are known to pay far less than minimum wage to seafarers operating on ships out of Southampton.

Possible enforcement measures include surcharges, suspension of port access and fines.

The BPA said it was concerned by government expectations that ports should police shipping. The BPA chief executive, Richard Ballantyne, said: The creation of new rules for ports to regulate ships in such a way is unprecedented. Enforcing the minimum wage is not an area where ports have a core competency. This should be a job for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or HM Revenue and Customs.

“It remains unclear whether the bill will achieve the government’s aims of improving longstanding issues for seafarers. Our initial assessment is that it might not be compatible with the UK’s obligations under international treaties or the current principles which governs our independent ports sector.”

The TUC hit out at the government for dropping a promised employment bill that would have given greater rights and protection to all workers, including those at sea.