P&O Ferries and my experience of ship safety scandal on the Tees reveals huge failings in maritime law – Father Neil McNicholas

SADLY, the situation involving P&O Ferries should come as no surprise to us.

I grew up in Redcar within sight of the mouth of the Tees and yet, like most people with no direct connection with the port, I never really gave the situation of merchant seamen working on-board ships a second thought until, after becoming a priest, I served for some years as Catholic Port Chaplain on the south of the Tees.

My experience during that time was quite an eye-opener.

Another round of protests took place over the weekend after P&O Ferries sacked 800 staff and tried to replace them with agency workers on as little as £1.82 an hour.

We might be appalled at what still goes on at sea in our name.

I say “our” name because, as an island nation, some 95 per cent of our imports and exports come and go by sea, our economy therefore depending to that extent on the work of those who, on our behalf, “go down to the sea in ships” in the words of Psalm 107.

British crews and British registered ships are few and far between these days – the vast majority of seafarers are from ‘Third World’ countries and their ships could be registered anywhere.

One of the contributory factors to adverse conditions on-board ships is the situation of ‘flags of convenience’. Owners register their vessels with countries who are, shall we say, less than vigilant when it comes to international law governing the shipping industry and the condition of ships and their crews. Meanwhile the registering of foreign vessels is a nice little earner for these countries.

Another round of protests took place over the weekend after P&O Ferries sacked 800 staff and tried to replace them with agency workers on as little as £1.82 an hour.

While the primary work of port chaplains worldwide is to minister to the spiritual needs of seafarers when they are in port, as advocates for them and their welfare chaplains try to keep their eyes and ears open when they visit their ships.

All too often crew members are reluctant to speak up about problems on-board because of the powerlessness of their situation and their fear of being sacked, which can happen as easily as we saw with the P&O scandal. Let me give you an example.

I was asked to celebrate Mass on board a small cargo ship berthed in the Tees. It was winter but there was no heating on-board and you could see your breath as you were talking.

The Filipino crew clearly had very little in the way of warm clothing and there were obviously other problems though they wouldn’t say anything.

Another round of protests took place over the weekend after P&O Ferries sacked 800 staff and tried to replace them with agency workers on as little as £1.82 an hour.

The ship itself looked poorly maintained and by the time I left I was sufficiently concerned that I reported the situation to the authorities.

An inspection team was sent immediately, before the ship could sail, and they discovered, first of all, that it was only licensed to ply its trade in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean – it should never have been in the North Sea.

The crew had been recruited directly from the Philippines but had been issued with no warm clothing.

Below decks the inspectors could see daylight shining through holes in the steel plating of the hull – that’s how bad the rust was and how thin the steel plating was in places.

It was an accident waiting to happen and, in fact, the inspectors were amazed that it had reached the UK without sinking. It was immediately impounded as being unseaworthy and fit only for scrap.

The Greek owners insisted on repairing it but weren’t willing to pay what it was going to cost to have the work done on the Tees and requested permission for it be towed to a shipyard in Poland where the work could be carried out more cheaply.

Only later did we discover that when it arrived in Poland the repair work was never carried out. The owners renamed and re-registered the ship, sent the Filipino crew back home, flew in a new crew who knew nothing about the situation and, still a death-trap, it sailed for the Mediterranean, never to be heard of again.

Generally things are much better than that – or at least they are in those parts of the world where ships are regularly monitored and inspected.

But vigilance is always necessary because the incentive of commercial profit can cover a multitude of sins and lives being put at risk is too high a price to pay.

Life and conditions below decks is easily forgotten precisely because passengers – whether on ferries or cruise ships – never see the work that goes on out of sight to keep their vessels sailing.

On this occasion it has taken the unwarranted sacking of P&O crew members, and the recruitment of ‘agency workers’ (and thereby hangs a tale) reportedly at as little as £1.82 an hour, to alert the nation to what can be the reality for all too many seafarers of life at sea.

Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.

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