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Seafarers’ Pay

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

5. When his Department last held discussions with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the application of the national minimum wage to seafarers. (228329)

There has been regular contact between the Department for Transport and DBERR on this issue, going back many months. The last discussion at official level was on 16 October.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my pride that Labour’s minimum wage has made this a fairer country and taken millions of people out of poverty—but when are Ministers going to take action to close the loophole that allows foreign seafarers sailing between British ports to be paid as little as one third of the national minimum wage—sometimes less than £2 an hour? Will he meet me and my colleagues, and DBERR representatives, prior to our discussions of the Employment Bill, so that we can stop this exploitation of working people?

I well remember the introduction of the national minimum wage; I remember staying up all night to fight the Conservatives tooth and nail, while they did everything they could to prevent it from being introduced. The application of the national minimum wage to seafarers is a complex issue, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is the subject of ongoing discussions within Government. Three Departments have an interest: DBERR as the owners of national minimum wage legislation; the Department for Transport because we have general responsibility for seafarers’ employment rights; and the Foreign Office because of the implications for international law. Ships are generally governed by the law of their flag state even when on what is known as innocent passage through the territorial waters of another state. Any changes to national minimum wage legislation would need to be consistent with international law. I know my hon. Friend knows that, and that he also knows that we are trying to address this question.

UK seafarers can be denied the national minimum wage by foreign flagged vessels even when they work exclusively out of UK ports—and, as we have just heard, foreign seafarers face racial discrimination on UK ships. Why do we continue to allow this kind of thing to happen in UK territorial waters, when we would never allow it on UK territorial land?

The national minimum wage currently applies to those who are working, or who ordinarily work, in the UK under their contract. For seafarers, “in the UK” means in internal waters—in other words, the water and waterways to the landward side of the baseline. It applies to those working on UK-registered ships, unless the employment is wholly outside the UK or the worker is not ordinarily resident in the UK. It applies to offshore workers—for instance, on oil rigs in territorial waters—but excludes workers on ships in the course of navigation or engaged in dredging or fishing. The maritime unions are campaigning to get the extension to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) referred, and we are doing what we can to address the issue.