Malaviya Twenty has been moored in Great Yarmouth docks since December. To look at, it’s no rustbucket, kept in good shape by its Indian crew – but when I visited a week ago, they hadn’t been paid by the ship’s owners for all those months. This is a story about the fate of shipping in Britain – an often forgotten industry, though we depend on it for over 90% of our imports and exports, and for most of what is stacked on supermarket shelves.

Waiting for their wages, the 12 crew members spent their time growing vegetables – onions, garlic, cabbages and tomatoes – in pots on the deck. The company hoped they would give up, but they are holding out for their pay. “They’re trying to wear us down,” says one officer: they want no names printed for fear of blacklisting. He can’t go home without his pay as he has taken out loans to keep his family.

Why was this ship contracted here in the first place? That reveals much about British shipping and the fate of seafarers. This is an Indian supply ship sailing between the British coast and UK offshore oil rigs and wind farms. Despite this, their foreign owners need not pay the UK minimum wage: rates are often a third less than for British sailors.

The trade union Nautilus International,which often helps stranded crews, has stepped in, calling in the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). This means the ship is officially prevented from leaving port until the men are paid.

Its sister ship Malaviya Seven has been similarly holed up in Aberdeen. This crew were owed a total of $380,000 (£290,000) in June: some has been paid following MCA intervention, but Paul Keenan of Nautilus says $200,000 is still owing. The ship, worth millions, could be sold off to pay its debts.

The shipping industry is a prime example of what an unfettered free market does to a workforce, of globalisation at its reddest in tooth and claw. Flying flags of convenience, British shipping has been allowed to register in low-pay, low-regulation countries. That exodus took off in the wicked 1980s when the number of British merchant navy officers was cut by two-thirds, replaced by cheaper foreign staff. Now only a third of British-owned shipping is registered under a British flag.

Can Britain rule its own waves again after Brexit, restoring its ships to the UK flag with decent pay and safety conditions? No chance, since Britain has been the strongest lobby in Europe against reform. Of EU nations, Britain protects its own sailors least from unfair, undercutting competition, and issuing most “certificates of equivalent competency” to foreign mariners so they can work on its ships.

The three politicians who now command the Brexit negotiations are all extreme free marketeers. Once outside the EU, don’t expect welfare, wages and working conditions to be high among their priorities as they attempt to strike new trade deals. Indeed, the risk is that after Brexit shipping companies based in the UK will try to drop existing EU regulations. Others may leave because they need an EU base: Stena Line warned immediately after the referendum that it might re-flag its UK vessels.

A manning directive to ensure that ships sailing between EU states are paid and regulated under EU law has failed to gain approval in Brussels for years, defeated by ship owners wanting to hire cheaper non-EU crews.
Compare this with how the US protects its industry: all ships working between US ports must be US-built and crewed. Many countries do likewise. But in Britain and the EU it’s a global free-for-all, where the cheapest contract wins. The result is a collapse in the British-registered shipping industry, now only 0.8% of the total worldwide. Why would owners pay British wages when they can hire crews elsewhere for much less?

There has been a steep drop in training British mariners: companies are obliged to train some cadets, but then rarely take them on. More than 10 keen, well-qualified young people apply for every merchant navy training place; but despite promising good apprenticeships, the government has just cut funding for maritime training. Numbers are falling fast, though thousands of experienced officers are needed onshore as harbourmasters and marine pilots.

The City employs 15,000 of these trained officers in marine insurance, who arbitrate in causes of accidents and other shipping specialisms. A government report last year dodged all the real issues, but it did warn of the urgent need “to replenish and develop the skills needed to maintain our position as a world-leading maritime centre”. The 90,000 UK seafarers of 40 years ago have now become only 19,000.

In Britain, few employees are as brutally undercut as these. Ship owners fly foreign flags of convenience that allow them to fire British crews and hire others from the poorest countries, paying the lowest rates in a race to the bottom. Meanwhile the government turns a blind eye.

The sea has ebbed in the national consciousness, though it matters as much as ever to an island. Its romance still draws keen recruits, but it’s a dangerous workplace, with climate change causing more violent storms. Britain depends for everything on this buccaneering industry, yet wages are undercut and jobs lost through aggressive globalisation. As with the equally essential road transport industry, the state steps back where it should step up.

Two days ago Malaviya Twenty’s owners paid off some of the crew, who are flying home – though the ship will be detained until all wages are fully paid. And as the Nautilus union protests: “The exploitation of these crews directly undermines our own shipping industry with unfair competition.”

British politics focuses too little on the reality of working lives. Many who voted Brexit overestimated the impact of migration on their own low pay, or the lack of housing and public services. But here’s a case of crude, obvious labour-market abuse by employers substituting cheaper foreign staff.

If one company does it and undercuts the rest, then all must follow suit in bidding for contracts. Only government intervention can prevent a race to the bottom that is eroding established working rights in so many sectors.

Author: Polly Toynbee                    Source: the