Boris Johnson’s pledge to “level-up” the UK’s regions has been called into question after he was accused of failing to stop a ferry company paying staff less than £2-an-hour in the North.
P&O Ferries is changing its current mix of staff on its Hull-based routes serving Holland and Belgium, choosing to bring in about 100 crew from an agency in the Philippines to replace its European staff, who mainly hail from Portugal and Lithuania.
Employment laws currently exempt shipping companies from paying the national minimum wage, set at £8.21 for over 25s, if the crew does not reside in Britain, even if they spend many hours docked at UK ports.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said the employment “loophole” meant foreign catering and cleaning staff on-board P&O’s Pride of Hull and Pride of York ferries are earning as little as £1.74 per hour.
Labour’s shipping spokesman Karl Turner said he feared P&O’s decision was the “thin end of the wedge” and the precedent could be used on other international routes serving the UK – a move that would effectively bar British workers from being able to afford a career in the shipping sector.
Mr Turner, MP for Hull East, where the Bahamas-flagged vessels dock, said the Prime Minister must act if he was “serious” about delivering on his election commitment to improve the lives of those outside London and the South East.
Mr Johnson took a slew of seats across Labour’s heartlands in the North with his Conservative manifesto promises of boosting prospects and infrastructure across the country.
Shadow maritime minister Mr Turner said: “The Pride of York and Pride of Hull sail a route that will be absolutely essential to the UK economy post-Brexit, and equally as important if the Prime Minister is serious in his pledges to ‘level-up’ the UK regions.
“If the Government fail to act, how long will it be before we see the same thing happen across the industry and on other critical shipping lanes, and in the rest of the UK economy?”
P&O, which employs around 130 UK residents as part of its Hull operation, also runs other major routes, including between Dover and Calais, Cairnryan to Larne and Liverpool and Dublin.
Darren Procter, the RMT’s national secretary, said there was a “lack of desire” from ministers to clamp down on shipping companies not paying the minimum wage.
He said: “If this was a nail bar or a car wash, they would be screaming about modern slavery. It would be an outrage.”
Mr Procter said roles being filled by Filipinos entailed “working behind the bar, cleaning and making up the cabins”, adding: “They (P&O) are having people travel 13,000 miles when they could find people in a 5-10 mile radius from the port for these jobs.”
Business Minister Kelly Tolhurst previously described the pay conditions on board the two Hull vessels as “unacceptable” and a Government spokesman confirmed it wanted “all seafarers to receive a fair wage when in UK waters”.
The spokesman told the PA news agency the Government would “amend legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
P&O defended the wages being offered, calling them “fair rates of pay” compared to the money staff could expect to earn “in their home countries”.
The company said safety would continue to be a “priority” on the Rotterdam and Zeebrugge-bound ferries under its new employment arrangements.
“These changes are a part of a customer service initiative and nothing to do with costs or terms and conditions,” said a P&O spokesman.
“The incoming crew are highly trained and competent seafarers who will be working on shifts that are completely ordinary across the shipping sector.
“The majority have no interaction with the British economy as they live on-board on an ‘all found’ basis during their tour of duty and are employed at fair rates of pay when compared to wage levels in their home countries.”
Bob Sanguinetti, UK Chamber of Shipping chief executive, said he was confident living and working conditions on the ferries “meet and often exceeded” minimum standards set by law.