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UK Sets Minimum Wage for International Seafarers

UK Seafarers' Wages Act
New UK law applies to all ships calling 120 or more times per year in UK ports (file photo)

Published Mar 24, 2023 11:55 AM by The Maritime Executive

The United Kingdom finalized a new law on March 23 that compels shipping lines operating at UK ports to provide seafarers pay levels commensurate with the country’s minimum wage laws regardless of the nationality of the crew or operator. The Seafarers’ Wages Act received Royal Assent making it law as part of a government initiative to institute pay protections a year after P&O Ferries replaced its crews with lower-paid contract labor and as part of the broader initiative to crack down on unfair practices, end exploitation, and improve the working conditions for seafarers.

“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,” said Mark Harper, the UK’s Transport Secretary. “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.”

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 minimum wage in the UK is currently set at £6.83 ($8.40) for an individual between the ages of 18 to 20, £9.18 ($11.20) for those between 21 and 22, and for individuals age 23 and over the minimum wage is £9.50 ($11.60). With the new law, the UK has set a high bar in seafarers’ wages considering that as of July 1, 2022, the International Labor Organization’s recommended basic minimum wage for an able seaman is $648 (£550) per calendar month, an equivalent to an hourly rate of $3.20 (£2.66).

Before the law went into effect, seafarers working on international routes to or from UK ports were not entitled to the country’s minimum wage unless they were usually a resident of the UK, did work at least to some extent in the country, or worked on ships flagged outside the UK.

“Thousands of seafarers will now have extra security in respect to pay and working conditions following a year of turmoil after the mass sackings made by P&O Ferries,” said Stuart Rivers, Chief Executive of the UK’s Merchant Navy Welfare Board, a charity that provides welfare services for seafarers and fishermen. “Ensuring seafarers have the highest level of welfare support is imperative – and seeing this legislation given Royal Assent is a big step to achieving that.”

The UK government and union leaders were enraged last year by P&O Ferries's decision to dismiss 786 officers and ratings without prior notice or consultations with the unions. The company, owned by Dubai’s DP World and operating a fleet of more than 20 vessels, announced the dismissals in a videotaped message while saying it would replace the crews with lower-cost agency workers. 

Unable to prosecute the company for labor law violations, the government responded with a nine-point plan for seafarers, eight of which 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. 

Under the new law, authorities will have the power to charge operators of vessels who do not provide evidence they’re paying their seafarers the equivalent of the minimum wage and to refuse harbor access to shipping lines that continue to fail to comply.

The UK government is also advocating for European Union nations to follow suit and set minimum wages. The UK and France have already pledged to continue working together to improve conditions for seafarers working in the English Channel to protect crews from exploitation.

The government is also taking action against what it calls rogue employers using controversial “fire and rehire” practices. Consultations on a statutory code of practice have been initiated as the first step toward promulgating a new law addressing these practices. The code sets out employers’ responsibilities when seeking to change employment terms and conditions if there is the prospect of dismissal and re-engagement thus requiring them to consult staff and explore alternative options without using the threat of dismissal to pressure employees to agree to new terms.

Nautilus International, the UK union that represent 20,000 maritime professionals, recognized the passage of the wages act as a first step. The union however believes more is required to prevent a repeat of the P&O Ferries situation in March 2022. They are calling for implementing a mandatory seafarers charter, backed up by bilateral agreements with neighboring countries.

Earlier this week, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee also recommended the creation of a mandatory seafarers' welfare charter. The government's current plan calls for asking operators to sign up voluntarily but the committee believes that it will not give the assurances and protections that seafarers want and deserve. Transport Committee chair Iain Stewart expressed concern that the UK minimum wage equivalent for seafarers will not be sufficient to ensure proper treatment of seafarers.