Pilots Threaten to Strike UK Ports Over New Mandatory Health Checks

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Pilots responsible for the safe navigation of ships in and out of the UK’s seaports are threatening to go on strike later this year over new health checks being imposed by Associated British Ports (ABP), which operates the UK’s commercial ports. The union representing the pilots contends that the new checks were instituted in July 2023 without proper notification and consultation.

Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, reports it has lodged a dispute warning ABP that a strike could be brewing over the new mandatory health checks for pilots. Under British labor law, the union has to notify the employer and if the members vote to support a strike, they have to file a notification before any action is started.  Unite is seeking discussions with ABP over the new requirements.

The bulk of Unite members are in South Wales serving the ports of Swansea, Port Talbot, Barry, Cardiff, and Newport, as well as Southampton, the Port of Hull, and Immingham in the Humber region in the northeast. Unite warns however that the dispute could be wider and impact all 21 ports operated by ABP. 

Collectively the ports operated by ABP account for up to a quarter of the UK’s seaborne trade. Southampton is a major port of exports as well as the Ro-Ro vehicle trade. It is also the primary port for cruise ships. Other ports such as Hull are involved in exports of timber and the growing offshore wind industry.

“Unite is not opposed to enhanced checks but they need to be negotiated and introduced fairly,” said Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham. In a statement, she called it “incredible” that ABP Ports has not negotiated changes to the health and safety requirements and consulted with the union.

Pilots also told the local media that they are concerned because they do not know what is involved in the new requirements. They are concerned if they will be able to pass and want to understand what is required before the rules are imposed. 

The Pilotage Act of 1987 governs the rules for pilots including the requirement that each pilot has a medicate certificate. The act also sets down the requirement that ships must have a pilot to move in and out of UK ports.

Both the union and the employer agree that being a pilot is a strenuous and stressful job. They note that pilots undergo five years of training but many of them make it a lifelong career. Their ranks are small and it is a closely knit community.

Unite has written to ABP to start the formal dispute process. It could be resolved by negotiation, or the union could move to seek a strike authorization from members. Currently, the media speculation is that the earliest a strike might happen is late this year or early in 2024.

ABP responded by saying that the health and well-being was of critical concern. They said without specifying what was being changed that the new standards would help to ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing and reflected the demanding nature of the job.

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