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The brave new post-Brexit world – a look at UK maritime, three years after leaving the EU

On 31 January 2023 the UK marked the third anniversary of leaving the European Union. Has anything been gained for the shipping industry and the maritime professionals who underpin it – and what has been lost? Rob Coston of Nautilus International reports.

In August 2016, straight after the public voted to leave the European Union, Nautilus International pledged to fight to protect members' jobs, pay and employment rights in a new and uncertain future.


Nautilus had predicted ahead of the vote that there would be a largely ill-informed debate focused almost entirely on scaremongering on both sides. Unsurprisingly, the Union had then been inundated with questions from members about their employment status and future employment prospects should the UK decide to leave the EU. At the time, there was little that Nautilus could offer by way of firm advice, as so much would depend on the transitional arrangements and the type of relationship the UK entered into with the EU.


The Union did not tell members how to vote in the referendum but sought to cut through the noise and set out the facts, in so far as it was possible, to allow an informed decision.

Nautilus took the position – common to several other trade unions – that while the EU is a far from perfect institution, it had advanced worker protections, and it would be better to tackle any problems from within than without. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now ask what benefits to leaving have been achieved and what problems have arisen?


Movement of labour


A 2022 government paper on 'How the UK government is taking advantage of leaving the EU' highlighted that the UK still has a maritime blind spot with the report's only nod to the industry focused entirely on ports, especially the establishment of freeports.


However, there have been some effects of leaving the bloc that are obvious to all – foremost, that the hardening of borders with Europe has caused some travel and employment problems for seafarers – although these issues have perhaps been masked by Covid-19 restrictions.


The scale of this issue for UK seafarers is difficult to measure, although for some it is more obvious than others. For UK yacht crew, for example, it is particularly clear: the loss of freedom of movement and the application of Schengen rules has made it harder to remain in the EU for extended periods while seeking work.


Procedures for stamping in and out of the Schengen Area have caused trouble too with crew unable to prove the correct number of days they have stayed. Since June 2022 attempts to fix this situation have begun to bear fruit, with Italy now beginning to issue special yacht crew visas that allow for 365-day stays.


Jobs and pay


Before Brexit, 44.6% of the UK's export trade and 53.2% of its import trade was with the EU according to the UK government. We now know that import trade with the EU has dropped by 17% since Brexit with exports to the EU down 20%, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).


Office for National Statistics (ONS) 2021 data shows that the loss of EU imports was replaced by imports from third countries.


Overall, any overall drop in trade potentially means fewer jobs all around in transportation, including in shipping. Although clear data on that is yet to emerge.


For UK seafarers working domestically, the post-Brexit points-based immigration system introduced in 2021 had the potential to stop companies importing cheap labour and undercutting UK pay and conditions.


Applying to seafarers as well as other workers, the points-based immigration system means that employers must pay foreign nationals a minimum salary of £25,000 per annum. This is underpinned by the October 2020 extension of National Minimum Wage to all workers on the UK continental shelf.


At the time, Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson said the points-based system: ‘Puts a floor in the wages of all seafarers in UK waters, including on port voyages and on the UK continental shelf, and will thus help protect UK seafarer jobs.'


Yet the protections to seafarers of this legislation is being eroded in some cases with visa waivers that allow employers to circumvent National Minimum Wage requirements.


The Offshore Wind Workers Concession (OWWC) allows companies to skip the usual post-Brexit immigration restrictions and employ foreign nationals to join vessels engaged in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms. It has been repeatedly renewed by the government since it was first established in 2017.


Mr Dickinson explains the Union's opposition to the OWWC: 'For too long, employers in offshore wind have been able to take advantage of imported labour because of this visa waiver. In our opinion, the OWWC disincentivises employers from training UK maritime professionals and providing good job opportunities in the country's coastal communities. This is not sustainable or in line with government strategy as set out in Maritime 2050.’


Furthermore – as discussed below – the points-based system did not prevent the most egregious anti-worker assault in recent years, which happened to be in the maritime industry: namely, the fire-and-rehire scandal at P&O Ferries.


EU crew – including those from Nautilus's Netherlands branch – have faced administrative hurdles following Brexit. Since 1 January 2021, the same immigration rules apply to all EU and non-EU seafarers transiting through the UK, and there have been many cases of non-UK seafarers being refused entry to the country or even deported for not having the correct immigration documents or evidence of the purpose of their entry to the UK. This has been compounded by UK Border Force not taking a consistent approach to when a seafarer requires a visa.


Certificates of competency


When the UK left the EU it became a 'third country', not entitled to mutual recognition of certificates of competency meaning that approval from each individual EU country would be needed before that country would be able to recognise UK certificates as it did prior to Brexit. To give that approval, it is necessary for a member state to make a formal request to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) to carry out an assessment of UK seafarer training. However, simply making that formal request to EMSA allows a member state to recognise CoCs in the interim while the results of the assessment are awaited.


Having anticipated this scenario, Nautilus, through the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) and in cooperation with the European Community Shipowners' Associations (ECSA), wrote to member states prior to the UK's withdrawal asking them to make their formal request to EMSA immediately after the UK left the EU in January 2020. A positive response was received from most member states that issued significant numbers of endorsements, which ensured that UK seafarers were able to continue their employment on most vessels flagged with EU member states after Brexit.


Decline of the UK flag


Brexit had a devastating effect on the UK flag. According to Lloyd's List Intelligence data, it lost more than a third of tonnage in a single year from June 2018 to June 2019. This was driven by major shipowners such as CMA CGM leaving the flag, and P&O Ferries, which reflagged its six cross-Channel ro-ros to Cyprus . The most recent 2021 statistics show that, although the bleeding has been stemmed, the flag was still 37% smaller than it was in 2017.


For UK seafarers this is a clear disadvantage of Brexit. Although there is no requirement to employ UK seafarers on UK flagged vessels, the Red Ensign is a quality Flag and offers those serving onboard a high standard of maritime safety and welfare. It is worth asking whether the 8% decline in the number of active UK seaferers from 2020 to 2021 could be partly related to this effect of Brexit, as well as the pandemic (the figure recovered slightly by 2% last year).


Battle for your rights


Whilst the UK remained in the bloc, the European Commission was often a source of new rights and protections for workers. That includes in the maritime sector. For example, during the 2010s the Commission set out to regulate crewing conditions in the offshore services sector to create and protect employment opportunities for European seafarers. Brexit cut off this avenue for expanding UK workers' rights.


Pre-Brexit Nautilus and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) were concerned that the UK government could exploit a leave vote to 'further weaken existing workers' rights and protections in the search for greater "competitiveness"'.


This battle is about to begin, as the government's Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill goes through Parliament (it is currently in committee stage).


The Bill will make it easier for government to alter or repeal more than 2,400 EU-derived laws that still apply in the UK after leaving the EU – including key employment protections such as regulated hours of work and rest and paid annual leave.


Nautilus is monitoring the situation carefully and will be standing alongside other unions in defence of these retained rights.


Reasons for hope?


The three-year Brexit anniversary has fallen at roughly the same time as a different anniversary – the P&O Ferries jobs massacre. This was the first big test of workers' rights post-Brexit.


The truth is that the EU probably could not have prevented the company from sacking its seafarers, any more than the UK government did.


To date there has been no backsliding on rights after Brexit because the UK signed a trade a cooperation agreement stating that it would not reduce employment rights below the standards existing on 31 December 2020 in a manner that would affect trade or investment. However, the UK government has shown little willingness to use its new post-EU power to put new rules in place that can protect UK labour.


While the Seafarers' Wages Bill and new code of practice on fire and rehire are welcome steps, they are too weak in their current forms to prevent another P&O Ferries disaster – so Nautilus will continue campaigning to strengthen them.


Historically no British government has ever restricted employment in UK trades to UK nationals (known as cabotage). Brexit has not changed that situation although the promised minimum wage bilateral corridors in the government’s post-P&O Ferries nine-point plan is a welcome step in that direction.


In contrast, on two previous occasions, the European Commission sponsored an initiative to regulate intra-EU scheduled passenger services which would have ensured fair competition based on host state conditions between EU member states' ferry services. However, some member states blocked those initiatives.


Yet this does not preclude future governments – of any party – from taking actions to protect workers, some of which may not have been possible under the EU. Despite all the disadvantages of leaving the bloc, that at least is something to hope for.


About the Author: Rob Coston is the Communications Manager at Nautilus International.




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