On Thursday, P&O Ferries fired 800 employees on the spot. At the time of writing, some crew members were defying orders and refusing to leave their ships in protest. In a move that sparked outrage across the political spectrum, and within the wider trade union movement, the workers were sacked immediately, with no notice and apparently via video link. Management have indicated that the P&O workers will be replaced by cheaper, agency labour.
Unions have come together in solidarity to condemn P&O for “a betrayal of British workers.” Both Nautilus International and RMT have instructed their members to remain on board in protest, advising them not to sign redundancy packages. However, RMT reports that security guards with handcuffs are boarding ships to remove crew as the union calls for mass mobilisation against the company.
Industrial relations experts have taken to social media to highlight the wider context of P&O’s actions, pointing out that it is illustrative of a weakening of employment rights in the UK.
Professor Alan Bogg of the University of Bristol wrote on Twitter:
“This is nothing other than a deliberate and flagrant choice to ignore the law. This kind of lawlessness exposes a significant gap in the enforcement architecture of UK labour law. It is little short of scandalous that we are still waiting for an Employment Bill.”
Meanwhile, President of the IER, Keith Ewing commented:
“This is yet another example of why labour law is important and the folly of those who trust business to do the ‘right thing’. It is what happens when global companies are unconstrained by law, and free to treat their workers like commodities.”
P&O currently operates four routes: Dover-Calais, Hull-Rotterdam, Liverpool-Dublin, and Cairnryan-Larne, Northern Ireland. Under the Coronavirus (COVID-19) PSO freight scheme subsidy, it received more than £4.3 million in emergency funding from the UK government in 2020. It also received government aid when it furloughed over 1,400 employees.
In a statement, P&O Ferries said:
“We have made a £100 million loss year-on-year, which has been covered by our parent, DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.”
The principal unions representing the P&O staff are the RMT (who represent crew) and Nautilus International (representing officers). Both unions made public statements yesterday about the mass sackings.
Mick Lynch, RMT General Secretary said:
“We are receiving reports that security guards at Dover are seeking to board ships with handcuffs to remove crew so they can be replaced with cheaper labour.
“We are seeking urgent legal action and are again calling for the government to take action to stop what is fast turning into one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations.
“If this happens at P&O it can happen anywhere and we are calling for mass trade union and wider public mobilisation and protest against the company.”
Mark Dickinson, Nautilus International General Secretary said:
“The news that P&O Ferries is sacking the crew across its entire UK fleet is a betrayal of British workers. It is nothing short of scandalous, given that this Dubai-owned company received British taxpayers’ money during the pandemic.”
Ben Sellers, Director of the Institute of Employment Rights said:
“We have a serious problem with employment relations in this country if an employer like P&O can effectively “price in” the cost of breaking employment law and any penalties that come with it.
These issues go back four decades at least, and are part of a raft of anti-trade union, deregulatory legislation that has left employment protections in name only. There’s a clear need for stronger enforcement mechanisms against exploitative employers who put shareholders interests first, whilst ruining the lives of their workers”
A series of demonstrations are being held today against P&O in Dover, Liverpool and Hull.