Seafarer Welfare: P&O Ferries

Transport – in the House of Commons at on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of seafarer welfare standards on P&O Ferries’ fleet.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I wish to make it clear that the dismissal two years ago by P&O Ferries of nearly 800 seafarers without notice and without consultation was completely unacceptable, which is why this Government introduced a comprehensive package of measures to improve the welfare of seafarers and to stop the abuse.

On the specifics of the question, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency periodically inspects vessels that enter UK ports to assess their compliance with international standards, including those in the Maritime Labour Convention. We expect all operators to meet if not exceed those standards, and the UK continues to play a leading role internationally in driving up working conditions across the maritime sector. We are pleased that, just this weekend, P&O Ferries has committed to signing the Seafarers’ Charter along with four other operators. We will work with P&O Ferries to support it in its application for chartered status and assess its welfare standards against the charter’s requirements.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

Two years on from P&O Ferries’ shocking attack on seafarer jobs, trade union rights and employment law, the legal loophole that it used to escape criminal sanctions has still not been closed. The P&O seafarers were UK-based workers, but because P&O Ferries had flagged its ships out to Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas, P&O and, crucially, the Government knew that criminal sanctions, including fines for the offences that it committed, would not apply. Why have the Government not closed that loophole?

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As I said, the Government have introduced a comprehensive package of measures to stop the abuse of seafarers. In particular, we have introduced the Seafarers’ Wages Act 2023, which will come into force this summer and ensure the minimum wage for seafarers in the UK. We have the minimum wage corridor that is opening up this summer with France, ensuring the minimum wage across the channel, and we have the seafarers’ charter, which raises standards far higher. As I said, P&O and four other operators have applied to join it.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Last Sunday marked the two-year anniversary of P&O Ferries illegally sacking 786 workers, but two years on nothing has changed. This week an investigation by ITV and The Guardian revealed that P&O Ferries is not only paying many of its workers less than half the minimum wage but forcing staff to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week for up to 17 weeks at a time. France’s maritime Minister has called that “dangerous” and “not moral”, and has changed the law to stop it happening. The Seafarers’ Wages Act will not curb that treatment, nor will the Government’s voluntary charter, so when will the Government act to prevent those exploitative practices from happening in our waters?

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The Government agree that seafarers should obviously not be working so hard that they are fatigued, that it is dangerous, and that operators have a duty to ensure that that is not the case. The Seafarers’ Wages Act is obviously primarily focused on wages, and will ensure that seafarers get paid the minimum wage within UK waters. One provision of the seafarers’ charter will ensure that the operators have rosters so that seafarers are not fatigued and overworked. The Department will monitor compliance and work with the operators to ensure that seafarers are not fatigued.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

Further to the points made by the Labour Front Bencher, it is just over two years since nearly 800 P&O workers were summarily sacked and thrown off ferries. We will finally debate the Government’s utterly supine and ineffective fire-and-rehire code of practice next week, but it is just over two months since the Government claimed that they were making substantial progress on implementing the nine-point plan for seafarer protections. The Seafarers’ Wages Act still has not come into force, alongside a toothless and voluntary seafarers’ charter, which will not change how P&O operates, even if it signs up to it. We all know that in this House, so is it not time that the Government took meaningful action and got behind our seafarers?

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The Seafarers’ Wages Act will come into force this summer. Unfortunately, it takes time to pass legislation, and we had to consult on it. No one wants it to come into force quicker than I. The claim that the seafarers’ charter will have no impact is completely untrue. The operators will have to abide by the terms of the charter, which will ensure that seafarers earn the minimum wage throughout their engagements, that they get overtime payments of at least 1.25 times the hourly rate, and that they have rosters that ensure that they are not fatigued and safety is not compromised. The Government will monitor the compliance of the operators with that charter.