UK ports pilots’ strike a possibility

Ship pilots are threatening to go on strike later this year because of new health checks being imposed by Associated British Ports (ABP), which operates the UK’s commercial ports. Unite union has said that the new checks, which were instituted in July 2023, were introduced without proper notification and consultation.

Unite said that it had lodged a dispute, warning ABP that a strike could be the eventual outcome of the new mandatory health checks for pilots. 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. The notification by the union is part of a tortuous process that unions in the UK have to go through if a strike is to be legal. Unite is seeking discussions with ABP over the new requirements.

The bulk of Unite pilot members are in South Wales, serving the ports of Swansea, Port Talbot, Barry, Cardiff, and Newport. There are also pilots in the union working in Southampton, the Port of Hull, and Immingham in the northeast. Unite said that the dispute could be wider and could impact all 21 ports operated by ABP.

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. Pilots also told local media that they were concerned because they did not know what the new requirements would require, meaning that they could not be certain that they would still have a job if they failed.

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

ABP said that the health and well-being of pilots was of critical concern. ABP claimed that the new standards would help to ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing, and that they reflected the demanding nature of the job. However, ABP did not specify what was being changed.