Why a British ferry company has hired Indians at “poverty wages”

Sailing away from rough seas.
Sailing away from rough seas.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo
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A 185-year-old British company is paying its new Indian crew peanuts.

After suspending services and firing 800 British workers on March 17, ferry company P&O has been replacing them with cheap labor. On March 20, the UK’s Rail, Maritime, and Transport union (RMT) said two P&O ships on the Liverpool-Dublin route had been crewed with Filipinos being paid a meager $3.47 per hour. It warned that the company’s future replacement staff “will be paid poverty wages.”

The next day, the RMT said P&O ferry crews at Dover had been replaced by Indian seafarers being paid even more dismal wages—$2.38 per hour. The union’s general secretary Mick Lynch called this a “shocking exploitation” of these workers, as well as “another gut-wrenching betrayal” of the sacked UK crew. P&O told BBC News the figure was inaccurate, but did not comment on how much agencies pay workers on ferries.

“These ships of shame must not be allowed to sail. The government has to step in now and take control before it’s too late,” Lynch said. There is fury in the UK over P&O’s substantial pandemic assistance: the company received £10 million in emergency aid, and the government and union supported the furloughing of some 2,500 employees. Now, it is relying on foreign workers at rock bottom wages.

How can P&O get away with paying low wages?

While ethically dubious, what P&O is doing is not entirely illegal. It’s just exploiting loopholes in global shipping.

For one, some of the ferries owned by the London-based company, which has been owned by Dubai royalty for more than 16 years now, are registered in Cyprus. They’re not bound by UK’s minimum wage laws, which stipulate hourly pay of at least £8.91 for workers aged over 23.

Secondly, ships in UK waters operate under treaties where UK law does not always apply. Specifically, ferry services operating between the UK and mainland Europe (including the Republic of Ireland) are considered “to be under innocent passage, and are not affected by UK minimum wage legislation,” the UK government notes.

Indian seafarers’ wages

Typically, an early-career seafarer in India earns about 300,000 rupees ($3,900) annually. Assuming an eight-hour day with one weekly holiday, that’s well under $2 an hour. Abroad, too, they are shortchanged. For instance, where an Asian deck cadet on an oil product tanker is paid around $400 per month, a US deck cadet is fetches $950 for the same job. That $400 also boils down to around $2 with normal working hours. And these figures are even lower when you consider that Asian crews tend to work longer hours.

Many Indian seafarers, grounded by the pandemic and subsequent vaccination asks, have been desperate to get back to work. At home, several of them have been tricked by fraudulent crewing agencies. P&O is a known name, and even helped repatriate Indian crew members when Covid-19 first hit.

That doesn’t absolve P&O of allegedly taking advantage of Indians’ desperation—but it’s not the first company to do so, and it likely won’t be the last.