HL Deb 25 June 1906 vol 159 cc575-8

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether, if the wages of seamen of merchant vessels are improperly withheld by their employers, it is enacted that the wages shall continue to run and be payable until time of the final settlement thereof; and, if so, to ask whether in view of cases which have happened of improper withholding of the wages of masters of merchant vessels by their owners, His Majesty's Government will be prepared to insert an Amendment to the Merchant Shipping Bill which will give masters the same rights as seamen in respec to their wages continuing to run when there is any improper withholding of moneys earned by them in the course of their employment.

As the law stands at preent, the captains of our merchant ships are exposed to the most barefaced robbery. Under the Merchant Shipping Act all persons on board a vessel who have signed on, no matter whether they wear trousers or petticoats, or possess any knowledge of seamanship, are seamen, with two exceptions—namely, the captain of the vessel and the apprentices if the ship carries any. I will tell your Lordships how this injustice works out. A seaman who has some dispute about his or her pay receives from the shipowners every farthing up to the date of the final settlement of the dispute—that is to say, the seaman may be on shore for a year or two doing nothing, yet when the matter is finally settled he is paid for every day spent on shore up to the date of the final settlement. The captain of the vessel, not being a seaman under the Act, has not those advantages, and the consequence is that the moment he is thrown out of employment the payment to him ceases.

Your Lordships may remember that I gave a striking example last year of how this provision works. A certain captain of a sailing vessel met with very bad weather and had to put into port in America to refit. This was an underwriters' job, and the underwriters had such a high opinion of the captain's knowledge of seamanship that they asked him to oversee the repairs that were required. The junior partner of the owning firm, however, went to this port. He found great fault with the captain and finally said to him, "Now, captain, according to your agreement I give you a week's notice and you must go." There was a considerable sum to the credit of the ship, and at the junior partner's request the captain drew a cheque in his favour for that amount. This captain had been in the service of the particular firm for 18 years. The captain naturally did not expect the treatment he was going to receive, and he said, "What about my wages?" The money due to the captain amounted to about £124. "Oh," replied the junior partner, "you may go and be damned. You will get paid when you return to Liverpool and not before. The captain was, therefore, left stranded. He had to cable to England to his wife to send out money to pay his passage home. The wife happened to be an invalid and was away at the time at some watering place, with the result that the money was not sent out. He then managed to borrow the money and returned home. The captain went to the office of this company, which was in Liverpool, and asked for his money, producing all his vouchers, every one of which was duly signed. The reply he received was, "We cannot pay you. You must wait till we hear from the captain who replaced you in the ship." The ship had in the meantime gone to Sydney. Finally, a writ on the captain's behalf was served on this firm, who then applied to Mr. Justice Bargrave Deane, in Chambers, to have the action of the writ suspended till they could hear from the new captain, but his Lordship saw no reason for this. "You have all the papers before you," he said; "you have; all the vouchers, and I shall treat this shearing in Chambers as a hearing in Court, and give a verdict for the plaintiff." This is a case which happened last year. I am informed, and believe it to be true, that there is a practice among certain managing shipowners of withholding the payment to captains for some considerable time. The process is known among them as "starving the captain." Eventually they say to the captain who is, of course, losing money, having his family to keep up, "We will give you so much"—possibly a half or a quarter of what is due to him—"and we will give you a good reference." The unfortunate captain accepts that offer and goes off with half, or less, of what is due to him. I contend that that is nothing less than bare-faced robbery. If the captain were a seaman under the Act no managing owner would attempt to do such a thing, because during all the time of waiting for the settlement his pay would be accruing.

There is another matter which I think ought to be looked into. It is very doubtful whether the sums withheld from the captains ever go into the shareholders' account. The idea is that the managing owner takes the money as a sort of commission. Therefore, I think it is necessary, now that the Government are promoting a Merchant Shipping Bill, that masters should be included in the designation of seamen. It does seem an absurd thing that you should describe a stewardess, say, who goes on board for the first time, and a fireman who may never have been at sea before, as a seaman, and that the captain of the vessel, who occupies his position by reason of his superior knowledge of seamanship, should not be a seaman under the Act. I therefore hope His Majesty's Government will give a favourable Answer to the Questions I have placed on the Paper.


My Lords, the law with regard to the payment of wages of seamen has been correctly stated by my noble friend. The Board of Trade take the view that masters are in a much better position than seamen to make such conditions as they may consider necessary to safeguard their own interests. Any agreement which a master makes with his employer as to the payment of his salary is separate, and of an entirely different character from an agreement made between the master and his crew. His Majesty's Government, therefore, are of opinion that there is no reason for any special legislation on this subject, and they do not propose to bring it in under the Bill which they intend introducing in your Lordships' House in the course of next month.


My Lords, to put myself in order, I beg to move the adjournment of the House. I desire to correct one statement made by the noble Earl. The master of a ship is not in a better but in a much inferior position. There are plenty of masters, but few berths going for masters, and there is considerable difficulty in getting seamen, hence the large number of foreign seamen and aliens in the merchant service. But there are plenty of officers holding masters' certificates. The master is, unfortunately, bound to fall in with the agreement made. He is compelled to accept the terms imposed by the shipowner, and I think it is a monstrous thing that a man with his professional qualifications should be dismissed at one week's notice, which is less than would have to be given to a domestic servant. When the Government's Merchant Shipping Bill is in your Lordships' House, I shall move an Amendment on these lines.


I do not wish to interrupt my noble friend, but he has made a second speech upon a Question. There is no Motion before the House, and I hope my noble friend will excuse me for saying that he has been slightly irregular.