Pay discrimination is alive and kicking on the seas around Britain
I was shocked to find out that British ship-owners can still get away with paying some Indian and Filipino seafarers rates of around £2 per hour, even when they work solely on domestic routes such as ferries between two UK ports or vessels supporting the UK offshore oil and gas industry. This does not seem much reward for those at sea who have to brave the winter gales.
Discrimination at sea should have been outlawed long ago, as articles 18 and 45(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union prohibit discrimination on the basis of nationality. In the UK, the Race Relations Act protected most workers but a loophole meant that seafarers were exempt. The RRA has recently been superseded by the Equality Act 2010 but protection has still not been extended to seafarers on UK ships. The TUC, RMT and Nautilus International today called on the UK Government and the European Union to act quickly to end this discrimination.
The table below shows the country of origin of seafarers employed on British ships. It seems certain that citizens from the European Union and European Economic Area (EEA) states should already be protected by European law, but we need to go further.
I would argue that all seafarers should be protected, regardless of country of origin, and that protection should extend right across the EU and the EEA; otherwise we will not have a level playing field when it comes to employment opportunities, and poverty wages will continue.
Just to make this even more galling, many of the ship-owners who are vigorously defending their cheap-labour employment practices have also signed up for the Tonnage Tax, a measure that saves them corporation tax. At a time when the UK Exchequer needs every penny, any tax breaks should be accompanied by strong social responsibilities.
Estimate of the numbers of seafarers employed in the British commercial fleet that would be covered by EU law against nationality discrimination
|Country of origin||Number of seafarers|
|UK and other high-cost EEA) countries||6,815|
|Low-cost EEA and designated states||2,417|
|Low-cost other countries||10,307|
Source: British Chamber of Shipping submission to the Department for Transport (derived from table 3).
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said today:
“It is time to outlaw the ships of shame. It is a national scandal that employers are exploiting this loophole to deny seafarers a living wage.
We will continue the fight to stop this outrage which allows companies to wrap themselves in the respectability of the British flag while treating their workforce like slave labour. It is time for the government to act to end the super exploitation that is taking place in UK waters.”
Nautilus International General Secretary Mark Dickinson said:
“All EU/EEA nationals on UK ships are entitled under EU law to equal treatment and it is therefore necessary for the government to align UK law with European law without delay to avoid sanctions from Europe.”
TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:
“The government should play fair at sea and end the loophole that allows foreign crew on ships in UK waters to be so shoddily treated.
If it doesn’t act, ministers could be taken to court by the EU and run the risk of the country being fined millions of Euros at a time when the public finances are under great strain.
Some shipping owners have threatened to register their boats under the flags of other countries if the law is changed, but ministers should ignore this blatant attempt to cry wolf, do the right thing and call time on poverty wages.”
Shipping Minister Mike Penning said:
“The maritime sector is vital to the UK economy and it is my job to protect British shipping, but I also understand the concerns raised about seafarers’ pay. I have received numerous representations and held a number of meetings with interested parties, which have left me in no doubt as to the importance of this issue – both to the unions and the industry alike. I shall be meeting with those concerned again in the coming weeks, and I expect to be able to announce a way forward in the near future.”
I say: Let’s hope that the Government will do the right thing for seafarers at last – and wouldn’t it be good if they made the right decision before Christmas.