Maritime pilots may be on the verge of striking at the 21 UK cargo and cruise ports as medical standards impacting pilots are undergoing revision but without prescribed negotiation. At the moment, tensions between the involved parties continue, but the idea of striking has been introduced.
UK Port Pilots May Strike
The top union in the United Kingdom, Unite the Union – also known as Unite – is currently working with Associated British Ports (ABP) to resolve concerns over increased medical standards for port pilots.
The new, increased standards were introduced in July, but without the consultation between the parties that is required under health and safety legislation and the union’s recognition agreement. On October 6, 2023, Unite officially registered the dispute as the beginning of negotiations.
“Unite is not opposed to enhanced checks but they need to be negotiated and introduced fairly. ABP needs to realise that Unite stands ready to defend our members’ jobs, terms and conditions,” said Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary.
Details of the increased medical standards have not been disclosed. Unite’s concern is not for updated or enhanced policies, only clarity of those policies and fair negotiation between all parties. At this time, there is no information about how tests would be performed or what would happen if a member fails.
Because these tests would be critical to a union member’s job status and ultimate employability, Unite wants to be certain of the terms. Under the current law, the Pilotage Act of 1987, pilots are already required to hold medical certificates.
“Pilots must be in a good physical condition to tolerate the physical stresses of boarding and landing ships,” said Jane Jeffery, Unite’s regional coordinating officer.
Where Could a Strike Occur?
In total, any strike action could impact all 21 ports in the UK operated by ABP. The majority of the union’s members, however, are in Southampton (the nation’s busiest passenger port), South Wales (ports of Swansea, Port Talbot, Barry, Cardiff, and Newport), and the Humber (Port of Hull and Immingham).
No strike action has yet been determined, including any potential dates or the scope of a strike. Possible actions could include a complete work stoppage or a slowdown of operations, and may or may not impact all applicable ports.
A strike could also be targeted to just certain sectors of pilot operations, such as cargo ships, without impacting cruise vessels, or vice versa.
What Maritime Pilots Do
Maritime pilots are dedicated experts with intimate knowledge of their port operations, including tides, water depth, currents, weather, traffic, and other factors that impacts the navigability of port channels, turning basins, and docking areas.
Port pilots also have years of experience in their particular waters, as well as working aboard various types of vessels. A pilot will board an approaching ship – in and of itself a hazardous situation – and guide the ship expertly to safe docking in what are sometimes highly variable conditions.
“Maritime pilots are scarce, skilled and highly experienced. Ships can’t leave or enter the UK’s ports without them,” explained Graham. “So, it’s all the more incredible that ABP Ports is refusing to negotiate important changes to their health and safety.”
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There is no timeline for the proposed negotiations between Unite and ABP, and no indication of when – or even if – cruise ship visits to the impacted ports may be affected.
UK cruise travelers, as well as any passenger with a cruise booked from or visiting UK ports in the coming weeks, will want to stay alert to the developments and notifications from their cruise line about any potential itinerary changes.