At the White Cliffs of Dover, Shipping Giants Are Paying Below Minimum Wage

Just 25 miles across the English Channel from France, Dover is one of Europe’s most important ports. Yet massive outsourcing has allowed shipping giants to evade British labor law, putting passengers in the hands of underpaid, overworked agency staff.

The White Cliffs of Dover. Immanuel Giel / Wikimedia Commons

Dover is famed around the world for its “white cliffs,” but most important to locals’ livelihoods is its port, twenty-five miles across the water from France. One of the busiest such hubs in Europe, it supports around 22,000 jobs, handling 13 million passengers, 2.5 million freight vehicles, and £100 billion of UK-European trade annually. But with new business practices and the resulting industrial strife, the nature of the port economy is changing — along with the jobs it supports and its relation to the local community.

Much of the change owes to P&O, today Dubai-owned but until 2006 a British shipping and logistics giant. One of the most longstanding ferry operators in the Port of Dover, the firm is a household name in Britain. But in recent times it has enacted a wave of redundancies, 670 in Dover last June alone. During this round of layoffs — spurred by reduced traffic due to pandemic-era travel restrictions — P&O announced its intention to retire the Pride of Burgundy and reduce its overall operation by three vessels.

With the arrival of Irish Ferries threatening its market share, P&O brought the vessel back. After redundancies, it turned to an agency crew — meaning the staff would not be hired in-house by P&O, but by a recruiter paid by the shipping giant to source staff.

Nautilus International, the trade union representing maritime professionals, captains, officers, and similar employees, declared its opposition to the move. It insists that agency staff are being used to undercut Collective Bargaining Arrangements (CBAs) around pay and conditions previously reached by Nautilus and the employer. The P&O proposals would have officers working for below the CBA-determined pay scale, and working more than the long-standing agreed schedule of seven-days-on, seven-days-off.

Given this undermining of previously negotiated terms in the industry, in July-August Nautilus balloted members on the Pride of Burgundy for action short of a strike. The ballot returned a narrow majority against action. Yet the union has urged P&O to return to the negotiating table, arguing that in an industry where industrial action is very rare, the results of the ballot should still tell P&O that members remain concerned.

The newcomer on the block, Irish Ferries, is the source of even more controversy. A division of the Irish Continental Group, it has been operating various routes between Ireland, the UK and continental Europe for decades. But its track record on the treatment of staff is a cause for concern — in 2005 it was embroiled in a bitter dispute with Irish trade unions over its decision to make more than 500 workers redundant, replacing them with cheaper foreign agency workers. This June, the firm began operating on the Dover-Calais route, in a move welcomed by local Tory MP, Natalie Elphicke, and the chief executive of the Port of Dover, Doug Bannister.

Full of Holes

Irish Ferries’ arrival has drawn a less keen response from the rail and seafarers’ union RMT, which is running a campaign against it at the Port of Dover. A source in the Dover RMT branch told me that the union represents just under 700 workers in the town’s port economy, a high proportion of the total: it organizes some 83 percent of deck staff on P&O, 70 percent of the staff in technical departments (such as engineers and technicians), and 75 percent of those in on-board services (such as bars and shops on ship) in its ranks. He told me that Irish Ferries pays its shoreside staff relatively well as part of a “smoke and mirrors” campaign to deflect attention from how poorly staff on its vessels are treated.

Irish Ferries is said to do almost all its recruitment through an employment agency, Matrix Ship Management Ltd, headquartered in Limassol, Cyprus (where the ship is registered), hiring workers primarily from Eastern Europe. I was given a previously uncirculated copy of an interview with a former worker on Irish Ferries, conducted by an RMT officer. The interviewee confirmed that he was hired by Matrix, rather than directly by Irish Ferries.

He stated that he was working on a two-month-on, one-month-off, voyage contract system — but that often the night before workers are due to disembark and go on leave, they would be told that they had to stay for another month in order to renew their contracts. Pay for a steward amounted to €6.65 an hour (£5.64), with chefs making slightly more, allegedly without holiday pay (it being claimed that the extra is rolled into their monthly salary).

Such pay rates are below minimum wage in both Ireland and the UK. In fact, in the UK the National Minimum Wage was only applied to seafarers in law in 2020, having previously not been covered by it, and staff did not make National Insurance, social security or pension contributions from their wages.

The worker claimed that Irish Ferries had an obscenely high staff turnover — “over the course of a year they went through approximately 160 chefs on the ship I worked on” — due to the poor pay and conditions, and the “culture of bullying and intimidation.”

The ship’s staff were mainly continental Europeans  — “either Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Romanian and Polish… Some German officers too. Only a few UK/Irish officers.” The worker also states that pursers (head stewards) would attempt to catch staff speaking their native languages, and humiliate them for it, even off-duty (the working language of the vessel was English), and “there were times when they terminated people’s contracts for doing the same.”

The interviewed worker also claims that the firm’s safety culture was a cause for concern. He alleges that the employer would make chefs and stewards paint and do maintenance work, despite being neither qualified nor contracted for such tasks. He claims that a steward he worked with was ordered to paint the inside of a lifeboat on the quay side, and then fell with the ladder when climbing down from the ship, breaking his elbow upon landing. Irish Ferries allegedly sent him home and made him sign a disclaimer that he wouldn’t attempt to claim any compensation — having been told that his contract wouldn’t be renewed if he didn’t sign.

He also alleges safety issues with the vessels themselves — stating that the bow doors on one of the ships “were like Swiss cheese,” with holes in the outer bow door, leading to an accumulation of water between the outer and inner bow doors, “they would have to open the outer bow door slightly a few miles off from Cherbourg so the water could drain out.”

False Flag

Such efforts to work around the rules are something of a hallmark of the firm, as I learned from Darren Procter, National Secretary of the RMT. Telling in this sense is the fact that the Isle of Inishmore — the Irish Ferries vessel operating the Dover-Calais route — is registered under the Cypriot flag. Mr Procter told me that many ferry operators like P&O, also register under “flags of convenience.” He said that many operators claim that they do so for purposes related to mortgaging vessels — but that this doesn’t make much sense, given that the British ship registry is regarded as one of the world’s best.

The RMT official said that this Irish Ferries vessel is registered under the Cypriot flag to avoid British regulations around pay, conditions and safety — and that Cyprus is “a poor flag state” with a bad record on safety issues that has proven particularly unresponsive to seafarers’ concerns, especially over the past year.

Mr Procter echoed my local RMT source in telling me that Irish Ferries outsource recruitment to Matrix in order to seek labor not bound by local employment law, kept on two-month-on, one-month-off contracts, which have to be renewed with each voyage. Hiring labor from abroad using a Cypriot-based company allows the firm to routinely pay much lower than the British minimum wage, despite operating in British ports — undermining previous collective bargaining agreements.

Hiring staff from afar and keeping them for a long time is also a way of cutting costs, as operators must cover the costs of transport for employees from their home to the port, which could be very high when regularly bringing people over from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Mr Procter tells me that workers hired by Matrix for Irish Ferries are not given copies of their employment contracts, which are held under lock-and-key by captains, such that they are not informed of their responsibilities, rights and entitlements, and trade unions, governments and regulatory authorities struggle to ascertain precise rates of pay. He added that these practices by Irish Ferries constitute a “conveyor belt of systematic abuse in the Irish Sea” — and they risk bringing these practices to Dover with them.

The risk is that the poor working practices, safety standards, and under-crewing of Irish Ferries vessels “will end in a fatality” at some point. The RMT National Secretary notes a recent precedent for this. Last year, a cargo worker for Seatruck was killed in an incident involving a container, on a vessel chartered by P&O. That firm employs a similar low labor-cost model to Irish Ferries (with recruitment outsourced to other companies using precarious contracts). Larger companies like P&O chartering cheaper operators to do work for them presents a risk that some operators may do the same with Irish Ferries on the Dover-Calais route, jeopardizing the safety of crew and passengers in the process.

Both Mr Procter and my local RMT source emphasized the fatigue-inducing work schedules and voyage lengths at Irish Ferries — and the risk they present. A survey of fatigue in P&O ferries on the Dover-Calais route in 2011 found that even a week-on week-off system causes fatigue which negatively affects crew’s concentration, and hence both their and passengers’ safety. The significantly longer voyages for staff on Irish Ferries exacerbate these risks.

For all these reasons, the RMT man insists, Irish Ferries and its business model coming to Dover “isn’t about improving the local economy, it’s not about employing local seafarers, it’s about watering down health and safety and maximizing profits” — “a race to the bottom.” Similar concerns were voiced by my local RMT source, stating that members worry Dover could become a “port of convenience,” where companies feel empowered to use poor working practices with little fear of consequences.

Post-Brexit Britain

Many local RMT members who voted for Brexit in 2016 thought that it would be a catalyst for reshoring the maritime industry in the Dover and the UK more broadly — bringing local jobs, offering apprenticeships training for the next generation of seafarers, and bringing money into the local economy. I was told that this was precisely what Irish Ferries’ model undermines: not because its workers are immigrants — RMT represents many foreign workers – but rather because they are hired by foreign agencies, rather than in-house, on pay and conditions which violate CBAs in the industry in Britain, and likely violate the British National Minimum Wage. These workers’ poor pay — combined with the fact that they seldom stay in the local area when not working, and that they do not pay tax in Britain — means that very little of these wages ever reaches the Dover economy.

RMT General Secretary, Mick Lynch, has recently released an open letter, which criticizes Dover’s Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke for welcoming Irish Ferries to Dover. Lynch cites this as a “betrayal of Brexit in a coastal community scarred by the industrial changes the country underwent in the seventies and eighties.” My local RMT source adds that Elphicke “has very little interest in the seafaring community” and simply “pays lip service” to them.

Irish Ferries were approached for this report but declined to comment. For his part, Mr Procter insists that the RMT is prepared for a long fight against Irish Ferries — recognizing that it may take years for government, unions, and regulators to make them cease their cost-cutting practices. What remains to be seen is whether the economy and community of a town so dependent on the port can wait years on end to get back well-paid local seafaring jobs.