Mr Prescott and Mr Gayssot pledged to support a draft directive on harmonising working conditions for crew on passenger ferries running between member states. They also agreed to lobby their counterparts in other EU member states to procure support for the move, which they believe will protect jobs on cross-channel ferries and other European services.
A source close to Mr Prescott said: "There is concern over the way that crewing of freight vessels is going because, although they don't use as many people, the people they do use are non-EU personnel because they are cheaper. The concern is that, if this spreads from the freight services to passenger services, it could have a big impact on seafarers around the community."
The aim of the directive is to standardise pay and conditions for crew on ferries, removing any potential cost-cutting advantage by employing non-EU crew.
Although Spain and Finland are keen on implementing the directive, Denmark, Holland and Germany are said to be lukewarm.
Mr Prescott, himself a former passenger ship steward, is anxious to protect the jobs of British seafarers. The European Commission estimates there are 25,000 jobs in the European passenger ferry industry. The number of EU nationals in the freight and passenger sector slumped 37 per cent from 206,000 in 1985 to 129,000 in 1995, while the number of non-EU crew rose 14 per cent to 33,000. "This evolution has affected principally the freight transport sector, but the first cases of the substitution of EU seafarers by cheaper manpower have been noticed in the passenger transport sector, and there is concern that without proper controls this trend will increase," the Commission said in April.
Its proposal is designed to prevent the risk of "social dumping and unfair competition" in passenger transport. The move is backed by Neil Kinnock, the European transport commissioner, who said he would help "the fight against unemployment".