Brittany Ferries has recently signed the voluntary seafarer charters, which are intended to protect ships’ crews working across the English Channel.
CEO Christophe Mathieu, and President Jean-Marc Roué attended a signing ceremony in Paris, hosted by French shipping Minister Hervé Berville, who was joined by the UK’s Maritime Minister, Baroness Vere (pictured).
The charters are meant as a complement to laws mandating minimum wages for seafarers on ferries operating on cross-Channel routes.
In the UK, the Seafarers Wages Act entered into force in March, 2023. In France the loi Le Gac sur le dumping social (named after the Breton MP who drafted it) passed the final stage of the legislative process in the middle of July.
Not surprisingly, the maritime unions have commented on the charters.
For example, Nautilus International, the UK’s largest maritime union, called the UK Government’s Seafarers’ Charter “a step forward” but continued to urge the Government to make the charter mandatory.
On 24th July, 2023, the UK Minister for Aviation, Maritime and Security Baroness Vere of Norbiton launched the voluntary Seafarers’ Charter, part of the Government’s nine-point plan in response to P&O Ferries’ mass-sackings in March, 2022.
The voluntary Seafarers’ Charter includes action on wages, roster patterns, skills and professional development, tours of duty, rest, and others.
Nautilus International General Secretary, Mark Dickinson, said: “The content of The Seafarers’ Charter is a step forward; we particularly commend the Government for listening to unions and the industry on the need to address safe roster patterns and combat seafarer fatigue.
“The voluntary charter combined with the Seafarers Wages Act and the measures progressing in French law are key steps in combating low wages and poor conditions, exacerbated by P&O Ferries sacking 786 seafarers in March, 2022. These measures will help establish a level playing field for the employment of maritime professionals on routes between France and the UK.
“However, to ensure maritime professionals on all routes in and out of the UK can benefit from the provisions within the charter, it must be mandatory, as employers whose business model depends upon the exploitation of maritime professionals, will simply not volunteer to change.
“Last year, the UK government told P&O Ferries ‘The game is up. Rehire those who want to return. And pay your workers – all your workers – a decent wage.’ Whilst this latest development is helpful, until mandatory protections exist for all maritime professionals operating in and around UK territorial waters, it isn’t enough.
“The Government, whilst making progress, still has some way to go to fully deliver on the ambitions of the nine-point plan announced in the aftermath of the unlawful sackings by P&O Ferries.
“Nautilus will continue to work with Government and industry in driving for measures that represent meaningful improvements in the employment of all maritime professionals,” he said.
Seafarer union RMT’s General Secretary, Mick Lynch, added: “This agreement recognises the threat that unlawful operators like P&O Ferries continue to represent to seafarers across the UK and Europe.
“We need mandatory employment standards to grow jobs for our ratings and officers on short sea shipping routes from all UK ports, including to France. RMT looks forward, with optimism to working on delivering fair pay and a new deal for this country’s seafarers, consistent with the trade union rights of French seafarers on international routes, when the voluntary Seafarers Charter is reviewed after the next General Election.
“Now it’s over to P&O Ferries, Irish Ferries, crewing agents and other shipowners to confirm whether they will or will not comply with the Seafarers Charter, including the two week on two week off roster pattern,” he said.
The ETF said that while the sentiment to improve outcomes for seafarers is being welcomed by European and international unions, the two governments are urged to get serious about creating and enforcing minimum rules to rescue the unstable ferries sector.
ETF General Secretary, Livia Spera, said: “This agreement is a step forward in the right direction. But we need mandatory standards and sectoral collective bargaining rights. The ETF is calling for the adoption of mandatory seafarer employment standards on European shipping routes, underpinned by sectoral collective bargaining rights, where they do not currently exist.
“The solution proposed by France and the UK is based on a voluntary agreement by companies to follow the ‘rules.’ This is not enough, as it does not force companies to be compliant and it does not establish enforcement mechanisms.
“What is more, this agreement will not unpick the effect of P&O Ferries’ attack on its own workforce in 2022, when the company unlawfully dismissed 800 seafarers and violated their rights,“ she said.
Spera warned that the UK/France bilateral agreement and the voluntary charter will be unable to prevent such cases happening in the future.
She said it remained to be seen if P&O Ferries, Irish Ferries, crewing agents and other shipowners would decide to comply with what was agreed by the two countries.
“From our perspective, the focus needs to be on eradicating substandard working conditions and re-establishing decent standards and rights through legislation and collective bargaining,” she concluded.
International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) General Secretary, Stephen Cotton, also called for mandatory standards to be applied to all companies operating ferries in the English Channel, Irish and North Seas.
“We need to see strong laws supporting decent wages and conditions. And when laws are broken, we need to see swift enforcement and prosecutorial action taken by states,” he said.
Cotton said the voluntary charter would not stop the sector’s slide into another round of cost-cutting and wage slashing, because some companies had made it their strategy to ignore community standards and even break the law.
The public would be wondering why the likes of Irish Ferries and P&O Ferries were still permitted to operate despite not paying UK or French national minimum wages, undercutting their competitors who chose to do the right thing.
“We need to see a response from P&O Ferries and Irish Ferries to this initiative,” Cotton said. “How these rogue companies respond to today’s news will tell us a lot about whether voluntary charters are really going to be enough to stop the bad behaviour we’ve seen in recent years.”