On the morning of 17 March, crew aboard P&O ships were in a state of anxiety. They had received an early morning email informing them to expect an announcement later that day.
Rumours began circulating between workers on WhatsApp groups. Those on shore reported spotting what appeared to be security teams and coaches full of workers waiting at ports. Speculation began that they were replacement workers accompanied by P&O-hired goons. Soon, their worst fears were confirmed. A few hours later, a video played over Zoom informing 800 workers that they were being sacked with immediate effect before ordering them to vacate their ships.
Speaking to Tribune, crew members describe their sense of shock. Many had spent their working lives dedicated to seafaring. They had been praised throughout the pandemic as key workers who maintained vital maritime supply chains during a national crisis. There was no such gratitude for their service from P&O. In a moment, their livelihoods had been taken from them.
Security firm Interforce had instructed its heavies—made up of former police officers—to bring their handcuffs and prepare to physically remove non-compliant workers. A crew member described it as ‘mafia-like’. The Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT) union told its members to stay put. A dismissed worker recalls that ‘crew members on board were crying,’ afraid of what might happen to them as balaclava-wearing security walked up the ship’s gangplank.
News soon filtered through that the replacement crew were agency workers from overseas. Because of weaknesses in maritime employment law, these workers are exempt from National Minimum Wage protection. One group of exploited workers can be replaced by an even more exploited group. The agency crew are set to be paid just £5.15 an hour, less than a third of the amount earned by those they are replacing.
P&O claims these actions were necessary. The company simply had to cut costs to secure its future. While it is true their business was damaged during the pandemic and traffic had yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, hurting the company’s bottom line, a closer look at the finances of P&O and its parent company brings this claim into question.
P&O Ferries’ owner DP World made record profits throughout the pandemic, with a margin of over $1.2 billion last year alone. P&O has also received significant support from UK taxpayers over the past two years—including £10 million from the furlough scheme at the same time that DP World paid out £270 million in dividends.
P&O’s vicious industrial practices are hardly novel in the British economy. What sets this scandal apart is the bald-faced illegality behind the company’s actions. Under UK law, employers planning to make redundancies are required to notify their workforce forty-five days in advance—a law the company’s Chief Executive not only admitted to breaking but said he would break again. There is also a legal requirement to notify the relevant government authority. P&O did neither.
So why did P&O choose to deliberately break the law? The answer was confirmed by company bosses after they were hauled in front of a parliamentary select committee: they knew they would get away with it.
The maximum penalty for the failure to notify a workforce of a collective redundancy, a ‘protective award’, is ninety days’ pay. P&O offered workers an enhanced severance package in excess of this award. So even if employees rejected the settlement and brought their case to an employment tribunal, they would face an eighteen-month delay, have no guarantee of justice, and receive less money. The company effectively bought themselves out of the law.
Failure to notify the government can, in law at least, provoke more serious consequences, including an unlimited fine and criminal prosecution—so why risk it? The reason is that they knew they were dealing with a government that would not defend working people against these grotesque abuses. Their belief is well founded.
Predatory anti-worker practices have been repeatedly endorsed through the weakening of trade union laws and undercutting of employment rights. Describing the situation, professor of labour law Alan Bogg argued that the failure to ban fire and rehire after the tactic spread like wildfire during the pandemic created a culture of impunity which in turn produced ‘fire and rehire on steroids’.
The government’s response has been on a spectrum from the impotent to the ridiculous. The prime minister has recognised P&O’s lawbreaking, but there is a clear intention to kick the issue into the long grass: the government requested the Insolvency Service provide an answer to whether the actions were illegal by 8 April. By then, P&O’s new operation will be up and running, and the story will be out of the news.
Not only are they unwilling to act, ministers had prior knowledge of the company’s plans and did nothing. Boris Johnson met the Emiratis, who own P&O through Dubai World, the day before the sackings. We then discovered that his departments had been passing around memos giving the P&O line just hours before the sackings, without even bothering to inform the workers. But this week we also discovered that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was warned of the planned restructure at a meeting in Dubai as far back as November last year.
But in place of meaningful action, ministers suggested that the ‘Pride of Britain’ ferry be renamed. Then there was the buffoonish spectacle of the MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, attending a picket line and joining in chants of ‘shame on you’ before realising that they were directed at her. On Monday, the government condemned the company in strong terms—before ignoring a parliamentary vote to bolster employment rights in order to prevent a repeat.
The whole affair shines a light on the weakness of rights and protections for workers—from the crisis of enforcement, where companies know the cost of lawbreaking is less than the profits to be gained through criminality, to the restrictions on the ability of working people to defend themselves.
One such example is that as a condition of their severance package, workers were made to sign Non Disclosure Agreements. These are designed to prevent workers taking legal action, to gag them from speaking publicly about their experience and to intimidate them from joining pickets or protests which might disrupt P&O activities.
Restrictions on trade union activity leave working people fighting with one arm tied behind their back. The most effective form of industrial action to resist thuggish tactics and defend livelihoods—secondary or ‘solidarity’ action—remains illegal, preventing trade unions employed by separate companies from acting in support of P&O’s dismissed workforce.
If the right to solidarity action was restored, workers across the maritime sector could refuse to deal with P&O and bring the company to a standstill. Or trade unions could target P&O’s parent company to ensure they pay a price for illegal and immoral behavior. A former crew member expressed the feeling of helplessness the current laws impose on workers in their situation. ‘We should be able to resist,’ he told Tribune. ‘We should have that right.’ Dockers in Liverpool and Hull are still refusing to handle goods, but the reality is that the laws make it extremely difficult.
In 1988, when striking P&O workers were ruled to have taken illegal secondary action, they were met with the full force of the state. The National Union of Seamen’s offices were sequestered and their assets seized. This is in stark contrast to the culture of impunity for law-breaking bosses. If P&O are found to have failed to notify the relevant government authorities, they should be prosecuted. Any company that behaves in this manner should clearly not be allowed to operate.
The dismissed workers want action. One urged the government ‘to come down on [the company] like a tonne of bricks’. Another said they must ‘make the fines be as big as possible. Claw that money back and share those millions with the 800 crew that have lost their jobs.’ They are insistent that P&O’s license to operate should be revoked, that the company should be taken into public ownership and the workers reinstated. At the very least, the government must cancel DP World’s lucrative freeports contracts.
For those who have lost their jobs, their world has been turned upside down, with one worker comparing it to a ‘bereavement’. But against such hardship, their defiance, and the solidarity movement which has sprung up, is inspiring.
There has been a trickle of what could be described as ‘informal secondary action’ involving workers and unions refusing to work with P&O and their parent company. There were even reports that some agency workers were walking off their jobs. Meanwhile, protests from Scotland to Dover have put pressure on P&O—but have yet to shut the ports. The campaign will need to escalate to stand a chance of reversing the decision.
Former crew members are pessimistic about their chances of receiving justice, but they are determined not to lie down. If P&O are allowed to get away with it, all working people in Britain will be left exposed to the same treatment. One who spoke to Tribune said, ‘We are the sacrificial lambs. But we’re going to keep fighting. We need to make sure their name is finished as a warning so that this never happens again.’
The P&O scandal and the response to it should be a watershed moment that exposes the imbalance of power in Britain’s economy that encourages all out assaults on wages and conditions—and which motivates us to struggle for the strengthening of worker’s power to allow us to fight back.