The tide is turning on employment law at sea. For decades, maritime employment seemed to be governed more by treaty than by specific national regulation. Increasingly, however, the UK has begun to take action – best demonstrated by the new “Seafarers’ Wages Act”, passed in response to recent well-documented controversies.

In this post, we examine the mix of UK and international maritime law to assess where UK law applies to seafarers, where it doesn’t, and the recent domestic developments that could change employers’ relationship to the sea.

Historically, a vessel’s flag was king.1 In other words, except when a vessel worked almost exclusively in UK territorial waters, the law of the flag state – not of the UK – generally applied. However, increasingly, parliament, the government and the courts are cracking down on what they see as unfair black holes in employment protections. What does all of this mean in practice, though, for a number of employment issues?

  1. Unfair dismissal: Even if an employee is crewing a foreign-flagged vessel, if they are based in the UK (if their duty “begins and ends” here), UK unfair dismissal protections will apply.2
  2. Time off: Flag state law applies to time off. Note the Maritime Labor Convention, however (to which the UK and 97 other countries are parties), which requires ships flying the flag of any member state to offer at least 2.5 days per month of time off (roughly equivalent to UK domestic standards).3
  3. Wrongful dismissal: A contractual remedy for breach of contract, wrongful dismissal is governed by the law selected for the contract.
  4. Consultation on redundancies: This depends on “sufficient connection” to the UK.4 Where an employer isn’t UK resident, the flag of the vessel isn’t British, the employees aren’t UK resident, the contract does not choose UK law etc., a UK employment tribunal shouldn’t have jurisdiction. However, the greater the connection an employment relationship has to the UK, the greater the risk of UK law applying – for example, if employees or the employer were UK resident or if the vessel ordinarily worked in UK territorial waters.
  5. Notifying a competent authority of mass-redundancies: Employers making 20 or more employees redundant within 90 days in the UK (or on UK-flagged vessels) must notify the Secretary of State. Failure to do so is a criminal offence. Statute extends this obligation to non-UK-flagged vessels – requiring them to notify the competent authority in their flag state. 7 However, it remains unclear whether the criminal offence applies here, and again there would have to be “sufficient connection” for UK law to apply.
  6. Wages: In March 2023, the UK parliament passed the Seafarers’ Wages Act,8 de facto requiring all vessels frequently in UK waters to pay national minimum wage. Any vessel that docks in the UK more than 120 times per year must provide harbour authorities a “wage equivalence declaration”, stating they pay the equivalent of at least UK minimum wage. Failure to provide a declaration within a specified timeframe makes the vessel subject to a surcharge; failure to pay the surcharge would cause the harbour to refuse access to the vessel; providing false information on, or acting out of compliance with, the declaration is a criminal offence.

In summary then, the UK increasingly wants to regulate any maritime employer activity to which it feels a strong enough connection. Employers must become increasingly cognisant to the individual legal issues, and keep an eye out for further changes in UK statute and common law.

In particular, seafaring employers should now take particular notice of their employees’ wages, even where their vessels are foreign-flagged and they have little connection to the UK.

1 See, for example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Art. 94
2 Diggins v Condor Marine Crewing Services Ltd [2009] EWCA Civ 1133
3 Maritime Labor Convention, Regulation A2.4(2)
4 Seahorse Maritime Ltd. v Nautilus International [2018] EWCA Civ 2789
5 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, S. 193(2)
6 Ibid., S. 194
7 Ibid., S. 193A