French and European ferry crew unions are calling for a minimum pay and conditions deal for Channel workers in the wake of P&O’s sacking of 800 staff and their replacement with low paid crew. Some are allegedly being paid under £2 an hour.
P&O is able to do this by employing new workers from areas such as India on agency contracts out of Cyprus – where some of its ferries are registered – avoiding paying the £9.50 UK minimum wage.
Dozens of Connexion readers have written in to say they will never use the firm again.
Dubai-owned P&O Ferries says it had to make the “incredibly tough choice” to avoid bankruptcy and estimated losing around €100million in 2021.
Two French unions want France-UK agreement
The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) is urging action at European level while France’s Feets-FO union is calling for a France-UK deal on a ‘level-playing field’.
ETF General Secretary Livia Spera told The Connexion: “If they are losing money, there is enough money in the mother company – lowering wages is not the way forward. We can’t let this go.”
Feets-FO head of international issues Laurent Le Floch said: “Our fear is that, for competition reasons, other firms could start to be interested in this kind of practice, which would be awful.
“The level of wages we’ve heard about for the new P&O seafarers is just exploitation.”
The UK’s RMT union said Indian recruits at Dover were paid around £1.81/hour, a figure the firm declined to comment on. Its boss later told MPs the average new hourly wage was £5.50.
The RMT union also said P&O workers employed under French or Dutch law contracts were not sacked as they have more protection.
P&O’s boss meanwhile admitted to MPs the firm ignored a legal obligation to consult unions, saying compensation will be paid.
Some sacked UK crew were employed via Jersey
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs there may be legal action and he would “take steps to protect all mariners working in UK waters and ensure they are paid the living [minimum] wage”.
Many of the sacked crew were employed via Jersey, a self-governing Crown dependency of the UK with its own laws. However, Bristol University labour law professor Alan Bogg said there are sufficiently close links with the UK, including the HR offices being in Dover and the workers being paid in sterling, for the contracts to fall under UK law. He said French law is more protective over mass lay-offs, with stronger obligations and remedies for breaches.
UK remedies would only be financial but he said cases often do not come to court if a firm offers a significant level of compensation.
Under French law it would have been easier to get a court to stop the redundancies, he said.
P&O’s new workers are said to be employed via agencies in areas such as Cyprus, which have lower pay standards. Since 2019, its ferries have been registered under flags of countries including Cyprus and the Bahamas, and not the UK.
UK media reported one P&O ship as having been detained at Larne, Northern Ireland, as unfit to sail due to training concerns.
French union calls for French and UK to protect Channel workers together
Mr Le Floch said they want the French and UK governments to agree that services operating between the countries should be under their own national flags and employment law.
“The French say they will study how it is possible, with the UK, to ensure advantageous working conditions. They are scandalised by P&O’s actions, as are we.”
He said, for now, French firms do not have such practices – Brittany Ferries, for example, sails under the French flag, with French employment rules and minimum wage requirements.
DFDS said its Channel ferries are under UK or French flags, and the UK fleet follows UK working terms. Irish Ferries, which started sailing Dover to Calais last year amid claims by unions that it would employ the cheapest labour from around the world, did not comment.
Nothing to do with Brexit
EFT’s Livia Spera said P&O “suffered, as have other operators, during the crisis but had subsidies from the UK government and did not approach unions about a solution”.
Estelle Brentnall, ETF’s head of maritime issues, said Brexit was probably not a factor as the UK had retained most relevant EU law principles, “though the UK always tended to implement the minimum”. Post-Brexit, she said they are asking the European Commission for new minimum standards laws to apply both to services within the EU and to those regularly coming in and out its waters.
She added that foreign flags can affect jurisdiction on pay. “Although Cyprus is EU, it is relaxed on wages,” she said. She has, however, asked the Commission to check if Cyprus rules, at least, are being applied by P&O.
Call for Channel firms to apply the law of either France or UK
ETF believes UK-France ferries should apply standards of at least one of the two countries and engage in bargaining with unions. “We want a race to the top, not the bottom,” she said.
“This situation could set a precedent for the industry. For example, a good company such as DFDS could face unfair competition. It could drag down standards.”
DFDS has written to the UK government asking to discuss how a level playing field in the Channel can be achieved for operators such as itself which employ British crew directly.
An RMT spokesman said: “Workers under French law were more protected. UK law for seafarers is loose, with a series of exemptions companies can exploit.” He noted the sacked workers were based out of Dover, Hull and other UK cities, whether contracts were signed in Jersey or not. He added they will hold the UK government to its promises to look into any breaches of UK law. “We need a review of employment practices on ferries and action taken to prevent this happening again.”