UK and France Launch Charter Expanding and Protecting Seafarers’ Rights


The governments of the UK and France this week introduced a new charter for the shipping industry calling for broad protections for seafarers. The voluntary program, which has already received commitments from four major ferry operators, addresses working conditions as the next step in the response to the 2022 mass firing of crews by P&O Ferries.

The UK government had promised to take a series of steps targeting wages and welfare after P&O Ferries dismissed over 800 crewmembers without any prior notice to the unions or the government. Crews were told of the dismissals in a videotaped announcement and instructed to leave the company’s vessels immediately. They were replaced by lower paid contract workers. The move set off weeks of protests and while the government found the company had not broken any laws it vowed to take steps so that seafarers would be better protected in the future.

Meeting in France on July 24, the UK’s Maritime Minister Baroness Vere and France’s State Secretary for the Sea Minister Hervé Berville announced the new program. It followed a meeting earlier this year by the UK’s Transportation Secretary Mark Harper and his French counterpart Clément Beaune where the two countries agreed to work together to improve conditions for seafarers employed on vessels sailing in the English Channel.

“Fair pay and protection against unlawful discrimination are the basic rights of any employee. Our seafarers deserve nothing less,” said Baroness Vere. “I therefore expect companies across the maritime sector to sign up to this Charter, letting their staff know they’re serious about protecting their rights and welfare.”

Under the terms of the charter, shipping companies commit to overtime pay at a rate of 1.25 times the basic hourly rate. They are required to provide rest periods and setting schedules to consider fatigue, mental health, and safety, but also guaranteed the right to carry out regular drug and alcohol testing. Seafarers will be eligible for social security benefits, including sickness benefits, family benefits, and medical care. The shipping companies will also provide adequate training.

Another key element to address union concerns is explicit language in the charter that employers must not use threats of dismissal to pressure employees to accept new terms of employment. The charter calls for “honest and open discussions” between employers and representatives of the seafarers.

Four major operators, DFDS Ferries, Condor Ferries, Brittany Ferries, and Stena, all have committed to the charter. DFDS noted that it had worked with both governments on the practical application of the charter and new laws while all four of the companies highlighted that it as part of their commitment to their workforces.

The charter follows the UK’s passage of the Seafarers’ Wages Act in March 2023. Starting in 2024, ships calling at UK ports at least 120 times per year and carrying either passengers, vehicles, or goods are required to pay their crews at rates equivalent to the UK minimum wage. Under the law, shipping companies that fail to provide evidence of fair pay will face fines and if they continue not to comply with the law will be barred from UK ports.