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Mick Lynch: We need binding laws to prevent vicious race to the bottom for seafarers’ jobs

‘P&O have been preventing seafarers from ‘interacting with the British economy’ for years’

Mick Lynch is General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers

Disgraced P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite admitted he could not live on £4.87 an hour during his grilling by MPs at the Business Select Committee hearing last week.

It was probably the most truthful thing he said throughout his testimony.

Committee Chair Liam Byrne MP was asking that question because that is the pittance many of Hebblethwaite’s staff have to subsist on while working for P&O Ferries.

Worse still, the seafarers currently working on P&O Ferries’ Cypriot and Bahamas registered ships are employed via a crewing agent registered offshore, further undermining their terms and conditions.

During his testimony, Hebblethwaite informed MPs that his crews are employed by an agency and are not employed by P&O Ferries directly.

At the same time, Hebblethwaite repeated his dubious claim P&O’s seafarer welfare standards were “second to none.”

This perverse situation has arisen following the decision two years ago by P&O to sack 786 seafarers, violating domestic British law and ripping up collective bargaining agreements.

Heavy duty security guards entered ships on March 17th to remove the crew, on the orders of P&O bosses. 

P&O were eventually given the green light from their Dubai owners to fork out a redundancy payment that circumvented the Employment Tribunal process and slapped gagging agreements on those who took ex-gratia, time limited redundancy payment which cynically exploited the cost-of-living crisis and the aftermath of the pandemic.

This decision to drastically alter the P&O crewing model from a union recognised workforce with decent terms and conditions, to super exploited agency crews paid less than the UK national minimum wage, is part of the company’s drive to maximise profits and minimise costs.

Replacing our members with agency Ratings on £4.87 per hour and other poverty rates of pay cannot be tolerated at P&O or any other operator in the UK.

Hebblethwaite’s reference during his testimony to International Transport Federation (ITF) agreements demeans the maritime industry, as these are agreements in the deep sea where an ordinary seafarer can be paid a basic rate under $500 per month.

The ITF supports a mandatory seafarers charter which would set seafarer pay and conditions on international ferry routes from the UK and allow negotiations between trade unions including with all operators of passenger and freight ferries from UK ports. This would include P&O.

However, comparing the rates of pay that are established through ITF agreements on vessels transiting the world should have no place in the short sea ferry sector.

We are clear that the crewing model for seafarers working on ferry services that call at a UK port up to five times a day should reflect local employment conditions, regardless of where the ship is flagged.

Hebblethwaite also claimed that their agency seafarers on the Channel have 7 days leave per month and 9 days leave per month on Hull-Rotterdam during 17-week contracts.

We can categorically state that P&O’s seafarers on these routes do not work 28 on and 36 days off respectively during their 17-week contracts and it is noticeable that Hebblethwaite could not say whether crews are working longer than 17 weeks or not in the North Sea.

From what we know, agency crew on the Dover – Calais route continue to work 17-week rotations, working a minimum of 12 hours per day 7 days per week over that period.  

They are essential ferry services for the economy and the employment conditions and rights of all Ratings employed on board in roles such as cook, steward, abled bodied seamen or engine rating, should reflect this through collective bargaining agreements with the RMT, like those agreed with Stena Line and DFDS ferries.

P&O crews are also effectively held captive, as they are prevented from taking shore leave in the UK, to visit shops, exercise or benefit their mental wellbeing during their 17-week contracts on the Dover route.

P&O have been preventing seafarers from ‘interacting with the British economy’ for years and the replacement of our members with agency crew on voyage only contracts, ingrains this approach.

Given the riding roughshod over British laws, sacking hundreds of seafarers and continuing to mislead parliamentarians, P&O needs to be bought to heel through strong domestic legislation.

That’s why we need binding laws, setting mandatory standards above international minimums which is creating a vicious race to the bottom for seafarers’ jobs, working conditions and livelihoods in the ferries sector.

There is a tremendous opportunity to legislate for high employment in the shipping sector and wider maritime economy particularly in growth areas like offshore renewable, decommissioning and waste transport.

But that can only happen by reviving jobs for UK Ratings across the shipping industry, ending exploitation of seafarers and providing opportunities for seafaring communities to get back on their feet.

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