Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Union Launches Scathing Attack on Manning of RoRo Freight and Passenger Ferries

RMT Presents Case to Parliament Showing Scandalous Underpayment to Seafarers
Shipping News Feature

UK – A new report, commissioned by the specialist transport trade union RMT from maritime specialists at Cardiff University has found serious loopholes in the country’s legislation regarding the minimum wage paid to seafarers. A shocking table of shame indicates that on some UK RoRo freight and passenger ferries crews are being paid at the rate of just £2.25 per hour as opposed to the current rate of £6.50 for workers over 21, and a minimum even for first year apprentices of £2.73.

The main problem is that crews employed from elsewhere in Europe and around the globe are not subject to Britain’s pay legislation. The RMT points out that this is having a debilitating effect on native seafarers with a mere 23,000 UK officers and ratings currently active at sea and with numbers falling off over the past twenty or so years. Today the union will take its case to the House of Commons and present its manifesto for change to MP’s.

The Maritime Futures report acknowledges the progress made under the current Government in linking training for ratings to the concessions available to international shipping companies from the Tonnage Tax and the development of ratings apprenticeships. It also however makes a case for a different approach to minimum wage enforcement and reserving jobs on specified routes for UK seafarers on UK registered ships.

This part of the report will be open to criticism as it draws parallels with America’s Jones Act, often fiercely criticised overseas as protectionist but widely supported at home with the main reason given as its original purpose, homeland security of maritime supplies. Mick Cash, RMT General Secretary said:

“The Maritime Futures Report provides clear pointers to where the next Government needs to take action in order to protect seafarers’ jobs and the Red Ensign from unfair crewing and registration practices adopted by international shipping companies to cut costs at the expense of our national interest. We should no longer tolerate shipping companies flying in low cost seafarers from around the world to work on ships from UK ports for rates of pay as low as £2.25 per hour. The maritime industry needs reform in favour of UK based seafarers, the maritime skills base and the UK register.”

The RMT calls for further progress with the report recommending a mandatory link between Tonnage Tax and ratings training and support for travel and accommodation costs from shore based training for UK ratings. UK seafarer numbers which have fallen over 70% in 30 years and the number of ratings has fallen nearly 30% since 2011 to around 8,500. The Government’s latest Seafarer Statistics (for 2014) are due out shortly. RMT National Secretary Steve Todd observed:

“Seafarer exploitation in the UK sector could be rolled back, if the proposals in this report are adopted. The remaining bastions of seafarer employment in the UK are ferries and offshore supply, where low cost crews have gradually been introduced by employers and if this is allowed to continue unchallenged, our island nation will lose the vital capacity to operate and maintain a merchant fleet. Our seafarers are aging and the next generation of seafarers, ratings and officers is not being trained. This report provides Government and the industry with the tools to provide some balance and stability to seafarer recruitment, something which has been missing from the industry for decades but is absolutely essential to our national economic health.”

The RMT manifesto being presented to politicians calls for five action points to ‘repair the maritime skills base through the training and employment of the next generation of seafarers’. Firstly for equal rights to employment, equality and immigration law for UK seafarers.

Secondly the enforcement of protections for UK flagged and crewed vessels engaged in island cabotage. EU law currently permits member states to limit provision of island cabotage to national-flagged vessels and protection for domestic crew but excludes cargo vessels over 650 gross tonnes which enables maritime freight companies to recruit non-UK crews to work on vessels trading between UK or Red Ensign Group ports. The RMT proposes that the next Government bring these vessels in to the scope of island cabotage protections and also calls for an end to the regular re-tendering of ferry services which disrupts continuity of employment and lifeline public services.

Thirdly the government should provide funding for ratings training and apprenticeships appreciating that the Tonnage Tax, introduced in 2000, has since provided shipping companies with over £1.45 billion in tax breaks. The union says the training link to ratings is a step toward achieving a better deal for seafarers and the UK taxpayer from the scheme. This change is a pilot and will be reviewed in 2018. RMT believe that the training of ratings should be mandatory for shipping companies in the Tonnage Tax and this permanent change should be made at the earliest opportunity. The government’s Support for Maritime Training (SMarT) scheme continues to provide £15 million in annual funding. Well over 90% of that is spent on officer cadet training but the remaining amount, set aside for ratings training and rating to officer conversion, the RMT claims is largely unused by industry.

The fourth point is the retention of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which trains numbers of cadets each year, in the public sector. The consequences for national security of a diminishing maritime skills base are felt most keenly at the RFA, the civilian organisation tasked with re-supplying and re-fuelling Royal Navy ships and crew when posted overseas, off the coast of Sierra Leone or the Persian Gulf, for example. The RFA is the largest employer of Merchant Navy seafarers in the country and has been repeatedly threatened by the Treasury with privatisation in recent years.

The RMT manifesto claims that cuts to RFA staff and in the wider Merchant Navy, combined with industry demographics, suggest that the Royal Navy would struggle to procure ships staffed exclusively by UK seafarers, particularly in the event of a future military operation. It is widely accepted that the support provided to the Falklands taskforce in the South Atlantic in 1982 would be impossible today due to the shortage of UK based ratings and officers and the lack of diverse shipping in the merchant fleet. Yet the Ministry of Defence does not monitor trends in seafarer training and recruitment or fleet diversity which have a direct impact on the Royal Navy’s operational capabilities.

Lastly the manifesto calls for a review of the role and responsibilities of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) which it acknowledges has an excellent and deserved international reputation for quality and high standards yet has been subject to what it calls ‘swingeing’ government cuts. As the body responsible for administering the Red Ensign, the UK shipping register, the MCA is tasked with competing against flags of convenience to make the country attractive to shipowners.

This is further hampered by the fact that the MCA is also responsible for safety compliance of ships registered with Red Ensign Group flags in Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies which are effectively Flags of Convenience, such as Bermuda, Isle of Man and the Cayman Islands. It calls for a review of the MCA’s responsibilities saying safety and commercial responsibilities in the maritime industry, which remains one of the most dangerous to work in, should not sit together in one regulatory body.

Photo: The MV Daroja, which plys between Aberdeen, Lerwick and Kirkwall and whose operators, the Streamline Shipping Group, stand accused by the RMT of paying as little as £2.25 per hour. Condor Ferries and Stena Line are also accused of paying less than £2.50 per hour with P&O Ferries and Seatruck also named as having hourly pay rates below £4.00 on some routes. Crews named by the RMT come from places as diverse as India, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Portugal, Latvia, Ukraine and the Philippines.