Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has spoken out in Parliament on the need for greater government action to ensure the pay and conditions of seafarers. Speaking during a debate on the UK Maritime Sector, Mr Carmichael welcomed progress that has been made in recent years, including changes to require minimum wage standards on vessels in UK waters, but warned that businesses would continue to flout the law if it were not fully enforced. He also highlighted the problems for Scottish shipbuilding and the replacement of ferry fleets.
Speaking during the debate, Mr Carmichael said:
“It has been a difficult couple of years for those working in our maritime industry. During lockdown, many seafarers found themselves in difficult situations, caught between different lockdown regulations—testing, tracing, self-isolating—in different countries. 11,000 maritime professionals fell through all the gaps in the safety nets; none was able to get assistance from the job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme. That statistic illustrates the different way in which the maritime industries work compared to those based onshore.
“The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers illustrates some of the challenges affecting the enforcement of minimum wage legislation. This was something of particular concern a few years ago, when I discovered that many of those working on the freight ships going from Aberdeen to Shetland, in my constituency, were deemed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs not to be in its remit for enforcing the minimum wage because the boats operated in ‘international waters’.
“I give credit to HMRC for having closed some of the loopholes, but many jobs advertised come nowhere near the level of minimum wage protection. Because of the way the industry is structured and operates, enforcement of conditions is a game of regulatory whack-a-mole.”
Chris Stephens, SNP MP for Glasgow South West intervened:
“I congratulate him on the work that he has done in the last couple of years to ensure that national minimum wage rates are paid to seafarers. Does he agree that what we would like to hear about from the Minister is a proactive approach to ensuring the enforcement of the national minimum wage?
Responding, Mr Carmichael said:
“Others, him included, have been working on the issue as well. It comes back to the first point I made: sunlight is the best disinfectant.
“To sound one note of caution, we have a difficult recent history [with public procurement] north of the border. We saw this week that, for the construction of the two ferries to serve Islay and Jura, not a single shipyard in Scotland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom is now being invited to tender by the Scottish Government. That shows that we need to have the strategy that everyone else has spoken about. If we have a gesture here on a difficult news day there, we do not do any favours for the people who work in these shipyards, never mind island communities.”