Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 20th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:33 pm, 20th July 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken today, but I particularly thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for his contribution. I cannot match the eloquence of previous speakers, but I formally—for want of a better way of putting it—thank him on behalf of these Benches for his magnificent contribution over those 43 years. At a personal level, it has always been a pleasure to listen to his interventions, not just for his tone and style but for his wisdom. It is the sort of wisdom that melds both logic and personal values. In particular, we feel that his view of the world is to try to be more conciliatory. That is an important element in our deliberations. Too often, we lose that sense of trying to work for a common solution, and one always sees his interventions as trying to find out what someone really means and asking if there is some common ground. It is as if he had a personal ambition to make this House a better place for all of us to work. I thank him personally and on behalf of these Benches.

These Benches support the Seafarers’ Wages Bill, which we hope will mean that more workers calling at UK ports earn the equivalent of minimum wage. However, I am afraid that, in the aftermath of the P&O Ferries scandal, this will not be enough to give seafarers the security which they deserve at work. Seafarers kept this country stocked throughout the pandemic, but loopholes in the Bill will mean that many still will not receive a fair wage, and other key issues such as pensions and roster patterns are not even addressed. For this reason, we will seek to amend the Bill to give seafarers greater security at work, crack down on rogue employers and make sure that the P&O Ferries scandal can never happen again.

I turn first to the vessels which are in scope of the Bill. As drafted, vessels docking at UK ports must pay the equivalent of national minimum wage for the time spent in UK waters, but Clause 3 states that this will apply only to ships which

“entered the harbour on at least 120 occasions in the year.”

While most services will be covered by this, for some routes, such as that of the “Pride of Hull”, only slight adjustments to the timetable would allow them to escape paying a fair wage. The Government’s own impact assessment shows that the department considered applying the legislation to ships which dock on 52 occasions a year. Can the Minister explain why they have not pursued this option?

It is also not apparent why the Bill refers to “the harbour” rather than “a harbour”. This could open a loophole for vessels to dock at different ports to escape paying a fair wage. Has the Minister considered that possibility?

On the wages which seafarers will receive, it is disappointing that the passage of the Bill will not mean that a worker’s full wages will equate to the minimum wage. While the Bill states that seafarers must receive the equivalent of national minimum wage for the time spent in UK waters, workers could end up receiving far less than the national minimum wage in total because many European nations have no minimum wage. For example, in the hypothetical situation where a seafarer works for four hours in UK waters, on a national minimum wage of £9.50, and four hours in Danish waters, with no national minimum wage at all, in total the worker would receive an average of £4.25—half of the UK national minimum wage. While I appreciate that the Government are seeking bilateral memorandums of understanding to address this, the uncertainty in government could mean that policies such as these are abandoned. Can the Minister commit to pursuing such agreements in the Bill?

I am also disappointed at the narrow scope of the Bill and the lack of broader protections for seafarers. Despite initially being referred to as a harbours Bill, the Government have stripped back the Bill to focus on the narrow issue of wages, leaving out references to a seafarers’ framework, as well as other commitments from the nine-point plan. While I appreciate that secondary legislation will be introduced to enact other aspects of the framework, Ministers should place guarantees in the Bill, including in relation to pensions, roster patterns and collective bargaining. Will the Minister explain why the Bill is no longer a broader harbours Bill?

On the matter of enforcement and penalties, the P&O Ferries scandal should represent a line in the sand for seafarers’ rights. However, we cannot ignore the fact that bosses ignored existing protections because the fines were too weak. It seems that firms such as P&O are willing to look at fines as a mere cost of existing.

Although we support the inclusion of unlimited fines in the Bill, the lack of a minimum fine raises the prospect that precedents could be set for smaller penalties. Ministers should strengthen the penalties in the Bill to make sure that rogue employers can never again get away with flouting seafarer protection. Will the Minister explain the Government’s position on minimum fines?

Given that the Bill also allows harbour authorities to monitor compliance, as many authorities are also operators, this could end with employers marking their own homework. Will the Minister consider safeguards to protect this system from abuse?

Turning next to the regulatory powers, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to change which services this wage protection applies to. Although we would support the expansion of protections to more workers, there is a risk that these powers could be used to exclude workers. Can the Minister today commit to a principle of non-regression of seafarers’ rights?

Next, on the provisions which mean that harbour authorities will have the power to refuse harbour access in response to non-compliance, the Government must mitigate any risks and ensure that access is never refused when it is necessary for the safety of the crew. Although I am pleased that the Bill contains provisions for when authorities cannot refuse access, can the Minister confirm that this is in full accordance with international maritime law?

Finally, as we consider the implementation and application of the Bill, Ministers should consider the role that trade unions can play as experts in the safety and conditions of seafarers. The current situation means that P&O, Seatruck, Irish Ferries, Condor Ferries and Cobelfret are all still using the low-cost crewing model which P&O imposed on 17 March. As a result, ratings are often receiving below the national minimum wage pay and long contracts that cause fatigue.

The P&O scandal must represent a line in the sand for seafarers’ rights, but in its current state, the Bill falls far short of achieving that.