Despite resolving to close an exploited loophole on ferry worker pay, the government has stopped short of an amendment to UK national minimum wage legislation.

In October 2020, legislative changes extended the minimum wage to most seafarers working on ships in UK waters, regardless of where a ship was registered, but those working on ferries (other than between UK ports) were not included, leaving scope for operators to hire crew on international routes on hourly rates below the UK minimums. In the absence of reasonable minimum wages, ferry operators can gain a competitive advantage by driving down wage levels.

Recent events have drawn attention to this practice, and in an announcement this week, the Transport Secretary set out the government’s plan to address some of the pay issues in response to this.

While recognising that a minimum floor is needed to prevent the competitive driving down of wages, and to ensure appropriate and fair levels of pay for ferry workers, the reality of pay arrangements across international borders is not straightforward.

The UK government could have unilaterally extended the UK minimum wage laws to seafarers on ferries operating on international routes to and from the UK. It chose not to, instead resolving to check that all UK ferry operators are compliant with the national minimum wage; and to legislate to allow ports to turn away vessels from ferry companies not paying the minimum wage (and will urge ports to refuse access pending the passing of such legislation). The Transport Secretary also confirmed that he was opening talks with his counterparts in a number of European countries to discuss how maritime workers operating on direct routes to/from the UK receive an acceptable minimum wage.

The announcement suggests a recognition that even in a post-Brexit world, the UK needs to work with governments in countries at the other end of routes to find an effective solution on the issue of low pay for seafarers, rather than acting independently. However, it is an interesting development. Even pre-Brexit, EU derived employment law did not regulate pay and so if the UK government can reach agreement with France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany on how ferry workers on direct routes between the UK and these countries should receive a minimum wage, this is a significant development taking employment law in an entirely new direction.

It remains to be seen how talks progress, and whether ferry workers can expect to see a rise in their minimum pay levels.