UK ports companies are concerned at government plans that will involve their staff checking if seafarers are being paid the minimum wage.

The new role is part of proposed legislation to try to ensure a scandal like P&O Ferries’ March sacking of nearly 800 crew members in favour of cheaper agency workers cannot happen again.

The idea is to enforce the minimum wage for ferries regularly calling at UK ports.

The proposals have been criticised by the British Ports Association (BPA), which believes the government is using ports to police the policy to circumvent international maritime law that would apply to UK state agencies.

Chief executive Richard Ballantyne said: “The creation of new rules for ports to regulate ships in such a way is unprecedented.

“Enforcing the minimum wage is not an area where ports have a core competency.”

Ballantyne believes this should be a job for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency or Revenue & Customs.

“Ports facilitate the safe and efficient movement of ships, goods, passengers and maritime activities ... they are not regulators,” he said.

The BPA believes it remains unclear whether the bill will improve long-standing issues for seafarers.

Treaty conflict?

“Our initial assessment is that it might not be compatible with the UK’s obligations under international treaties or the current principles which govern our independent ports sector,” Ballantyne said.

“We will continue to work closely with government on this to explore options which will enable it to enforce standards across the seafarer community.”

Seafarers union Nautilus International said the legislation is a welcome move but will not prevent the “actions of P&O Ferries and others from destabilising the UK ferry sector and threatening the employment of more UK resident seafarers”.

The union argues that urgent complementary legislative measures are needed to enforce the “minimum wage corridors” to and from European countries that are also being proposed by the government.

‘Major step forward’

The Department for Transport called the bill “a major step forward on pay protection”.

The new legislation will ban ferries that do not pay their workers the equivalent of £9.18 ($11.36) per hour.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “We will stop at nothing to make sure seafarers in UK ports are being paid fairly.

“P&O Ferries’ disgraceful actions do not represent the principles of our world-leading maritime sector, and changing the law on seafarer pay protection is a clear signal to everyone that we will not tolerate economic abuse of workers.”

An industry consultation will be held over the next four weeks.

There is a possibility of other ship types being included, while surcharges and fines are also being considered.