Ruwan Subasinghe, a lawyer at the International Transport Workers' Federation, on the need for Labour to speak out to end discriminatory pay for seafarers.
“Employers should not be allowed to exploit migrant labour in order to undercut wages,” asserted Ed Miliband in his acceptance speech a little over two months ago. While this appeared to be a veiled reference to the UK’s flawed application of the EU Posted Workers Directive, his words were carefully chosen to invoke memories of the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute and Gordon Brown’s infamous motto ‘British Jobs for British Workers’.
A factually different, yet emotively similar row is brewing at the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and Mr Miliband is best advised to seize the opportunity and champion the cause of the disgruntled Manx workers. This could quite easily be his first ‘Beyond New Labour’ moment.
Workers at the Steam Packet Company, the world’s oldest operating ferry service, are concerned about the arrival of a direct competitor allegedly paying their foreign crew as little as £2.90 an hour. With the Steam Packet already losing major freight forwarding contracts to their cheaper rival, unions are warning of unfair competition caused by the extremely low wages being paid to these foreign seafarers.
As it currently stands, the National Minimum Wage Act covers only those foreign national seafarers working aboard ships operating in UK internal waters (as opposed to territorial waters). Therefore, foreign seafarers working the Isle of Man-Liverpool route on non-UK flagged vessels are not entitled to the NMW.
While it has to be conceded that applying the NMW to non-UK flagged ships poses serious difficulties, it has nevertheless left a situation where seafarers from the UK (and other EEA states) are being undercut by low-paid seafarers from other countries on poverty pay.
The problem is further confounded by the fact that the Race Relations Act (now subsumed into the Equality Act) allows for seafarers to be discriminated against on grounds of nationality in relation to pay. Consequently, seafarers who reside and are recruited abroad can legitimately be paid wages way below the NMW.
There was considerable excitement and dismay in equal measure when the previous Labour government presented draft regulations on the application of (Part 5 of) the Equality Act; regulations which were silent on the practice of differential pay for seafarers recruited abroad. If they had been approved, this would have almost certainly rung the death knell for this unfair practice.
However, the current government appears to have succumbed to industry pressure and shelved the draft regulations for the foreseeable future. This decision was made despite the Coalition government publishing an independent report on the subject (albeit commissioned by the previous government) recommending the outlawing of nationality-based differentials for seafarers on UK ships.
To add insult to injury, the report debunked industry myths about increased costs and reduced competitiveness leading to mass de-flagging of UK registered ships. It is vital that Labour speak out now and promote the elimination of discriminatory pay for seafarers. If they don’t, they simply run the risk of letting the BNP in through the back door and allowing them to appropriate the issue.
Just like with their involvement in the wildcat strikes at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, the BNP will no doubt turn this anti-discrimination and fairness campaign into a xenophobic and racist one. Mr Miliband, please stand by your words and don’t let this opportunity slip away from your grasp.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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