MP ALISTAIR Carmichael has branded the low wages of some staff on the Northern Isles freight vessels a “scam” and urged the government to examine the application of the national minimum wage for seafarers.
The Orkney and Shetland politician raised the issue at the House of Commons in London on Thursday during a debate on the living wage.
Transport union the RMT previously claimed that around 20 foreign staff on the Helliar and Hildasay vessels were being paid just £3.66 an hour by Seatruck, who operate the ships on behalf of the publicly-funded Serco NorthLink.
On Wednesday Seatruck denied the claim but confirmed it was only paying at least £4.50 an hour, which is some way short of the £7.20 national minimum.
Speaking in parliament, Carmichael said the issue of underpaying seafarers was “widespread” in the North Sea.
Seatruck said it is entitled to pay below the minimum wage as the vessels are not UK flagged and the staff in question are not UK residents.
The company refused an offer from Serco NorthLink to pay it enough money to match the minimum wage, with Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf reacting to Shetland News’ article by calling on the UK government to intervene.
“If these practices were happening on dry land, enforcement action would be immediate,” Carmichael said.
“It would not be tolerated, but because it happens at sea it is somehow out of sight and out of mind.”
Under secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy Margot James agreed to contact HMRC about the enforcement of the minimum wage for seafarers.
Audible gasps and groans were heard from follow MPs in the chamber when Carmichael raised the £3.66 per hour figure.
The Liberal Democrat added that “beggars belief” that Seatruck can get away with underpaying staff because they are “deemed to be operating wholly outside the UK waters”.
“It is also wrong for the UK seafarers whose jobs and livelihoods are being undercut by these employment practices,” he continued.
“It is absolutely outrageous that we have a taxpayer-funded service which is being operated in such a way that undermines the opportunities of British seafarers to get the working conditions and employment rates they would otherwise be entitled to.
“It would appear that what they are doing is illegal, but that frankly it is just sheer sophistry. It is a scam and it is a scam that the government could stop if they were minded to take the necessary action to stop it.”
Carmichael also said there is an “awful lot more” going in the North Sea in relation to low wages and suggested ships chartered for the oil and gas industry may be also be involved.
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