RMT, the British transport union has launched an attack on the UK government’s Tonnage Tax scheme, which subsidises the maritime sector by taxing vessels according to their gross tonnage. The UK scheme is unique in its requirement that, in return for subsidisation participants must actively contribute to the development of UK seafarers’ careers.

According to RMT however, “in return for a rebate of at least £800 million in the last 12 years [shipping companies] have done next to nothing to promote jobs and training for UK seafarers.” As a result RMT will meet with the Shipping Minister on 2 July to demand a mandatory link between training and the tonnage tax scheme.

Speaking at the RMT AGM in Brighton, general secretary Bob Crow called for immediate action:

"It remains a scandal that in a seafaring nation like Britain, shipping companies continue to hack back employment opportunities for UK ratings and officers while they loot the tonnage tax using flagged out vessels, crewed by seafarers on poverty rates of pay.
"If the scandal of pay rates of £2.35 per hour on Condor Ferries can’t persuade the government to act, then the tragic sinking of the Swanland in the Irish Sea two years ago should - a rusting death-trap of a flagged-out vessel on a route between UK ports, crewed entirely by low-paid Russians who never stood a chance when the ship went down. Seafarers need government protection from lucrative multinational shipping companies and their highly paid lobbyists and RMT intends to step up the fight to secure just that.”

But for Adrian McCourt, managing director of Watkins Superyachts, this issue belies a more fundamental problem. UK qualifications he says, are still seen by many as the ‘A-standard’ tickets, and wherever the tonnage is registered, UK-trained cadets will remain employable. A more pertinent issue is the speed with which crew - British or otherwise - can gain their tickets, without gaining what historically would be seen as the requisite time at sea.

Furthermore, the reason this commercial quality is not always mirrored in the superyacht industry is the latter’s failure to embrace rotation. “There are not enough yachts doing rotation, particularly when it comes to captains”, McCourt said. “Owners may rotate the chief stew or the chief engineer but they always want to see the same captain. But if they can get three months on and three off on a commercial vessel, as opposed to 11 months on a yacht, the novelty wears off quite quickly.”

He cites the continuing depletion of British-flagged tonnage as a problem, with commercial fleet owners registering elsewhere. Unfortunately says McCourt, despite the fact that the quality of manning globally is falling, no amount of political jostling will alter this because the decline is commercially driven. “We were very proud of the Tonnage Tax when it first came into force and ships were brought in as a result”, said McCourt. “But then the likes of Liberia just decided to offer the same thing.”

Does the Red Ensign flag still command the same allure among owners?

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