The Seafarers’ Wages Act received Royal Assent on 23 March 2023 and is now law as part of the UK government’s initiative to crack down on unfair practices, end exploitation, and improve the working conditions for seafarers.
As a key strand of the Government’s 9-point plan for seafarers, the new law is designed to protect those working on vessels operating an international service from being paid less than the National Minimum Wage. Eight of these are legislations to grant British ports powers to refuse access to ships that do not pay their crew at least an equivalent to the UK’s minimum wage, which is currently set at £6.83 ($8.40) for an individual aged between 18 to 20, £9.18 ($11.20) for those between 21 and 22, and for individuals aged 23 and over the minimum wage is £9.50 ($11.60).
In 2022, P&O Ferries shamelessly sacked nearly 800 staff via videotape without notice or consultation and announced it would replace the crews with lower-cost agency workers.
The UK government acted swiftly to progress its 9-point plan in response and say they remain committed to seafarers as a priority, both domestically and internationally.
UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Our maritime sector is world-leading. That’s down to the thousands of hardworking seafarers working tirelessly to maintain supply chains and transport passengers safely across our waters. These workers deserve a fair wage, and I’m therefore delighted to see our Seafarers’ Wages Act become law, helping improve pay and protect seafarers from exploitation.”
Some MPs raised several questions, with a growing number acknowledging that whilst The Seafarers’ Wages Act is a positive step, it does not go nearly far enough and remains flawed.
Louise Haigh, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, criticised the lack of action against P&O Ferries, adding, “Its test must be whether it will end the exploitative practices that have become commonplace in our maritime industry. Will those responsible for the P&O scandal be brought to justice? Will it stop another P&O scandal? The only way to prevent this happening again is to hike up the damages that can be paid at tribunal and/or slap criminal liability on those who break the law.”
Seafarers working on ships that call at UK ports at least 120 times a year will now be entitled to a wage rate that is at least equivalent to the UK national minimum wage for their work in UK waters.
The new law sets a high bar considering that only last year, the International Labour Organisation recommended that the basic minimum wage for an “able seafarer” is £2.66 ($3.20).
At London International Shipping Week 2023 (LISW23), the new Maritime Minister, Baroness Charlotte Vere, pledged to put maritime “front and centre” in Government, highlighting her three key priorities for UK maritime: economic prosperity, decarbonisation and seafarer protection.
The UK and France have pledged to continue working together to improve conditions for seafarers working in the English Channel to protect crews from exploitation. The UK government has called for European Union nations to follow suit and set minimum wages.
David Hammond, Human Rights at Sea CEO, said: “Seafarer protections with associated flag, coastal and port State obligations require not just primary legislation to be enacted but persistent vigilance to ensure that fair working conditions are maintained, if not exceeded. This new Act is a start, but the likes of the P&O Ferries scandal must not be allowed to be repeated within the UK jurisdiction.”