As holidaymakers cross the Solent to the Isle of Wight for their summer break, Jake, who works for a local ferry firm, knows he won’t be going on holiday himself.
Poverty pay, long hours and poor conditions have left him broke and using a food bank.
“I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve had to use the food bank and other charities more than once,” he says.
“I’m physically and mentally exhausted from the hours I work. I work all the hours I can, but I’ve got nothing to show for it by the time I’ve paid my bills.”
All eyes were on the train strike and chaos at the Port of Dover this week. But in Southampton, and on the island, around 120 Red Funnel ferry staff were also taking industrial action.
More strikes are expected over Cowes Week, which starts on Saturday and attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors to the Isle of Wight every year.
Unite the Union says customer service advisers, catering assistants and cleaners are on £9.50 an hour at Red Funnel, while at rival firm Wightlink similar roles earn £13.42 an hour – with Wightlink cleaners on £10.99.
Unite says workers are often away from home for days, at times in poor accommodation, and are only paid the hours they work aboard the ferry, with no overnight subsidies provided for food or other expenses.
This is despite the fact that regardless of their role, Red Funnel staff must undergo sea training and are responsible for passenger safety.
Red Funnel, which traces its roots back to the Southampton Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited in 1861, is today owned by three pension funds.
Based in Southampton, it carries 2.3million passengers and more than 857,000 vehicles a year on its ferry route, and more than 1.1 million passengers on its high-speed service.
Sarah, who works in on-board catering, says: “I feel very undervalued. It is upsetting. I wake up at 4am, working 12-hour shifts 6.30am to 6pm. I haven’t been able to go on holiday myself this year.
“If I didn’t have a second job and a lodger, I wouldn’t be able to survive on this wage alone. A lot of the staff here have two jobs, many work for places like Deliveroo. You can’t live on this wage. We feel used.”
As the Tory leadership race deepens into further bitterness, predictably trade union rights are in the firing line.
Leading the polls, Liz Truss says she will introduce legislation targeting “militant action” from trade unions in the first 30 days of taking office.
Not to be outdone, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is threatening to “complete Margaret Thatcher’s unfinished business” with a series of draconian strike laws that would make President Putin blush.
TUC boss Frances O’Grady has called the proposals “a fundamental attack on a fundamental British liberty… shovelling salt in the wounds” of workers confronting “one of the longest, harshest squeezes on living standards in 200 years”. The right to strike is a fundamental British right, and a last resort for workers like those at Red Funnel.
“Pay and out-of-pocket expenses are so bad at Red Funnel that staff are using food banks to survive,” says Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “It’s horrendous, especially when workers doing the same jobs on the same stretch of water are earning nearly £4 an hour more.
“There is no justification for Red Funnel and its owners, who have billions in the bank, to pay such disgraceful wages. Unite will fight them every step of the away until there is a decent pay offer.” She added: “The Government has miscalculated. People can see behind the usual narrative of ‘union bad, boss good’. This is not the 1970s.”
Isle of Wight Tory MP Bob Seely has called for legislation to be brought in to restrict industrial action on ferries – but not a word in support of his constituents who are being paid poverty wages.
Fran Collins, chief executive at Red Funnel, said: “It is incredibly disappointing that, despite our fair and reasonable offer, Unite members have chosen to strike.
“We value all our colleagues and are keen to recognise their contribution to the company. However, pay increases must also be considered in line with what the business and its customers can sustain…” She said colleagues had access to hotels or en suite accommodation “which has been inspected and approved by HSE”.
Sam, who works as a shunter, says: “I work a second job, I have two full-time jobs and I am exhausted, but I need to provide for my young family. Like most people, I’m having to work two jobs because our wage doesn’t cover the rise in inflation.”
He said he was having to cut back on the kids’ after school clubs, and adds: “This isn’t a small family business – it’s a company that makes tens of millions of pounds a year.”
Meanwhile, Jake isn’t sure how much more he can take.
“Last month I was shouted and screamed at because of a delay that wasn’t my fault,” he says.
“I was sunburned and went without breaks to uphold first-class customer service and customers swore at me and called me names.
“I’m sick of struggling with money every month and getting abuse from customers on a regular basis.
“It’s not fair.”
All ferry workers’ names have been changed to protect them.