News that ferry operator P&O sacked 800 of its staff yesterday has rightly caused outrage across the country. A mass lay-off of 800 workers, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, would itself be cause for outcry—but the conduct of the company has added injury upon injury.
P&O crew members on the Hull to Rotterdam, Dover to Calais, Dublin to Liverpool, and Larne to Cairnryan routes were given zero notice of what was about to happen. On Thursday morning, Officers and Ratings were told there would be a Zoom call. During this Zoom call a video was played informing them that today would be the final day of employment: their company had made the decision that ‘its vessels going forward would be primarily crewed by a third party crew provider.’ The speaker was therefore ‘sorry to inform you that your employment is terminated with immediate effect on grounds of redundancy. Your final day of employment is today.’
No warning, no negotiation, no details of the redundancy package on offer, not even a simple courtesy of an in-person talk—just a ‘we’ve found someone cheaper, so sling your hook’ by pre-recorded video, and, in at least one person’s case, by text.
What a callous way to treat 800 workers who have stood by the company throughout the difficult times of the last two years of the pandemic. Crew members preparing for the upswing that would accompany the end of Covid travelling restrictions and the summer season have instead found their loyalty rewarded by a secret plan to sack them and employ cheaper labour.
Such behaviour has, of course, provoked a response, and crew members (who are represented by the Rail Maritime and Transport Union) refused to leave the ships, instead starting a sit-in occupation in protest. There have been reports of gangways being lifted to prevent security from boarding.
However, this plan must have been in the making for a while, for while the company may not have had the decency to talk to its crews it found the time, and expense, to hire handcuffed trained security guards in anticipation of protest. The BBC reports it has been made aware of a contract for these beginning from the 15th of this month. Crewmembers who refused to leave have been escorted off in handcuffs and, in unconfirmed reports, threatened personally and by name that refusal to leave will result in them losing enhanced redundancy for service.
Indeed, replacement agency staff are in some areas already said to have boarded the vessels. Clyde Marine, one of the agencies which supplied them, is already well known for driving down wages, including allegations of using uncertified trainees in place of fully trained seafarers. Time can apparently always be found to threaten workers effectively.
P&O claim that their business is unviable without the immiseration of hundreds of skilled workers; that they are making a massive loss already, and this can’t be helped. This claim might be more credible if their owner, the Dubai-based DP world, hadn’t paid out dividends to the tune of £270 million in 2020. P&O was already claiming £10 million or more of UK tax-payers’ money under the furlough scheme in order to foot 80% of the wage bill for its ferry workforce, leaving the prospect that money from the sacked 800’s taxes had been handed over to a company that was secretly plotting to throw them on the dole. The CEO of DP World’s net worth alone is estimated to be in the multi-millions. While those who work struggle to pay their bills, those who live off struggling mariners’ work seem to be doing just fine.
However, this is part of longer-term structural problems both within the maritime industry and the wider world of employment. In fact, despite their muted condemnation of the ‘insensitive way’ (Robert Courts MP, Under-Secretary for Transport) P&O has behaved, if the Conservative government truly were appalled at this kind of behaviour it is well within their gift to remedy it.
As early as 2020, we in the RMT were calling for nationalisation of the strategic ferry routes, both to protect them as a vital part of the country’s supply chain (after all, being an island, 95 percent or so of all imports and exports leave or land by ship) and to protect the jobs the industry supports. Having all but nationalised the wage bill for the company under the furlough scheme, it doesn’t seem ridiculous for us to expect a share of the profitable aspects of this vital business—or at the very least that our fellow workers’ jobs might be protected.
A maritime-specific issue is that of flags of convenience. Indeed, this has been used by some as an argument for why the government cannot step in. Why on earth should it be simply acceptable practice to flag vessels that operate entirely within the North Sea and the English Channel, carrying around 15 percent of the total British freight, to Cyprus for ‘accounting and operational’ purposes? Legislation to end the sorts of loopholes that allow companies to avoid regulations and tax is long over due.
Fire and rehire is becoming an increasingly common tactic employers use to drive down conditions. This isn’t the first time in recent memory it’s appeared, even if it is possibly the most egregious example of late. In the wake of Mr Courts’ comments it might be sensible to remind him that such ‘insensitive behaviour’ could have been made impossible if only his government had seen fit to ban fire and rehire last year after its review of the practice.
Anyone who claims to represent UK workers in Parliament needs to be hammered over this disgusting practice until they nail their flag to the mast for banning it. End fire and rehire not just for seafarers, but for all of us.
So long as employers still have legal recourse to these sorts of measures, workers can only rely on their own strength of organisation to combat it. This is why we are calling on the whole trade union movement to support the RMT’s campaign for these workers. If P&O are seen to be able to get away with replacing their employees en masse with cheaper alternatives in the middle of a cost of living crisis, how many other employers will feel emboldened to do the same? As far as this dispute is concerned an injury to one is truly an injury to all.
If we are to further prevent this race to the bottom of workers’ pay and conditions, we must fight as a labour movement for the commitment made in Labour’s 2019 manifesto to mandatory sectoral bargaining and a ‘rate for the job’. Such legislation would pull the rug out from underneath the providers of cheap labour.
Ultimately, this is a question of whether or not the people who labour to make the economy run should benefit from it, and so we should be unapologetic. The strategic ferry routes should be nationalised, not just for the jobs they support, but because they provide a vital service ensuring that necessary goods and passengers can enter and leave the country. P&O itself accounts for around 15 percent of all freight. Such a vital link in the supply chain is surely too important to be left to the whims of oligarchs in Dubai—or indeed, anywhere else.