Fighting against exploitation of seafarers and port workers

Fighting against exploitation of seafarers and port workers

Ben Norman

Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) members in Southampton and Portsmouth have launched a campaign against the exploitation of foreign seafarers by Condor Ferries. These workers are paid as little as £2.35 an hour due to a legal loophole.

Unite members at the same ferry terminal have announced a ballot for strike action in their battle against council plans to cut the contracts of quay assistants.

The newly formed Southampton Shipping branch of the RMT has called a demonstration, on 21 July at Portsmouth’s International Ferry terminal, against the exploitation of foreign seafarers.

Condor Ferries take advantage of EU directive ‘Mode 4’ which allows the recruitment of workers from across the EU.

However, a loophole in employment legislation means they can avoid paying European workers the national minimum wage when the ships are at sea or in UK territorial waters.

“It is disgraceful that companies like Condor are grossly exploiting foreign workers”, said Mick Tosh, RMT member and chair of Portsmouth trades council. “Everyone should be concerned about ships being crewed by workers on poverty pay” .

“We are seeking as much support as possible from RMT branches, trades councils as well as local groups”, said Darren Proctor, RMT Southampton Shipping branch secretary. “Condor and other shipping companies are jumping through legal loopholes in an effort to exploit seafarers and employ a reduced number of ratings due to the work roster”.

Unite has announced a ballot for strike action by quay assistants, who are responsible for tying and releasing cross channel ferries.

The ferry terminal is run by Portsmouth city council (PCC) who are seeking to fire and re-hire the workers on inferior contracts.

This will force them to guarantee to work beyond their contractual finishing time of midnight, resulting in 13-hour shifts.

“Unite has made numerous approaches to PCC to find a negotiated way forward, one that rewarded the commitment of quay assistants”, said Unite convenor at Portsmouth city council, Richard White. “However, PCC has chosen the heavy handed approach of dismissal and re-engagement on inferior terms – something which we will vehemently challenge”.

The attacks on the quay assistants’ contracts are part of Portsmouth city council’s wider austerity offensive, which is leading to cuts in public services and workers’ terms and conditions across the city.

While the RMT campaign and the Unite action should be united, the campaign must also link with council workers and the wider public sector unions to build a broad movement across the city to defeat austerity and defend jobs.

Darren Procter, from the RMT Council of Executives for shipping, and branch secretary of RMT Southampton Shipping, spoke to the Socialist:

We want to highlight how shipping companies are exploiting workers in the industry. Seven years ago Condor Ferries had seven ships with crew working two weeks on, two weeks off on union terms and contracts.

Now crew are working three months on, one month off, 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

For us this is not a race to the bottom, this is free fall! This is a health and safety issue for crew and passengers travelling out of Portsmouth.

Look into the reports of incidents on Condor of fires and hitting the quay, that is a sign of fatigue on board.

Through the Mode 4 European legislation, workers are on very low wages. Condor have defended this, saying that crew are paid four times the wages in Ukraine but this is on a ship sailing from Portsmouth to Guernsey! If they get away with this in shipping, think how many other companies are looking at how they can utilise this to make more money.

We have to raise awareness about how workers are being exploited. We want people to see that behind Condor is a massive investment bank with £150 billion in assets, more than enough to pay decent wages.

The RMT have raised these issues with Portsmouth council who own the ferry port, but they say it has nothing to do with them.

Local people paid for the new terminal in Portsmouth, they want to know why the local council is exploiting the labour of local workers.

We are holding a protest and public meeting on Saturday and urge people to come and give their support.

Protest on Saturday 21 July, 8am, at Portsmouth Continental Ferry Terminal. Public meeting: 6pm at The Registry, 1-2 St Michaels Road, Portsmouth, PO1 2EE

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 18 July 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.