By Bernie McAdam
P&O Ferries have brutally sacked 800 workers without notice and replaced them with scab crews on less than the minimum wage.
Nearly a quarter of the workers were informed via a pre-recorded video message announcing their ‘final day of employment’. Private security staff were deployed, with balaclavas and handcuffs, to ‘escort’ the workers off the ships.
The RMT and Nautilus unions immediately organised protests in Dover, Hull, London, Liverpool and Larne with solidarity shown from Unite, UVW, FBU and other trade unionists. Workers occupied some of the ships, like the Pride of Hull ferry, but have since been escorted onshore.
Workers are already fighting ‘fire and rehire’, where bosses dismiss workers only to rehire them on worse pay and conditions. This mass sacking takes it to a new level. It is a scabs’ charter using cheap foreign labour to undercut an existing workforce.
Addressing a select committee of MPs, P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite admitted he broke the law by not consulting trade unions and arrogantly said he ‘would make this decision again’.
The sickening cries of disapproval from the Tories disguise their refusal to stop the P&O’s sackings. The government was in receipt of a memo outlining the sackings beforehand and did nothing. Workers in Dover quite rightly heckled Natalie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, reminding the hypocrite, ‘You voted for fire and rehire!’
Hebblethwaite also informed the committee that new crews would receive £5.50 per hour, well below the national minimum wage of £9.50. P&O exploited loopholes in the law that exempt them from paying the minimum wage by recruiting workers not resident in the UK and by registering the ships in Cyprus.
In fact the true figure, as the RMT points out, is as low as £1.81 per hour. The exploitation also includes 12 hour shifts, eight weeks on, two weeks off, and substandard accommodation.
Hebblethwaite told the workers that there is ‘no future’ for the company without halving crewing costs. Yet the Dubai based billionaires of P&O’s parent company DP World announced record profits of $3.8 billion at the end of 2021.
P&O have sailed this route before. In 2020 they cut 1,100 jobs, citing a collapse in travel due to the pandemic… after paying a £270 million dividend to shareholders.
DP World runs Britain’s second and third biggest shipping terminals at Southampton and London Gateway. Both these ports have been chosen for ‘freeport’ status, receiving capital funding and tax breaks as part of the ‘leveling up’ agenda.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak rushed to reassure the company that they would be allowed to invest in freeports despite the ‘awful’ sackings. DP World has already put £2 billion into the UK economy with a further £1.5 billion in the pipeline, so Sunak’s protestations will of course be tempered.
The government has talked of reviewing contracts with the company and whether they were ‘in breach of any of the requirements on them as partners in the Thames and Solent freeports’ but this is all bluster. Workers’ jobs and pay will always be sacrificed at the altar of profit.
Although the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has detained a P&O ferry in Larne, Northern Ireland over concerns regarding the crew’s ‘familiarisation’ with the vessel, this will only be a temporary setback. The law always defends bourgeois property rights in the end.
Far more significant in the long term was Dutch workers’ refusal to load the Pride of Rotterdam. If this sort of solidarity can be spread to Calais, Dublin and the UK ports, so much the better.
But while international solidarity is a key part of the fightback, the entire trade union movement here must step up the fight for reinstatement. Failure to stop the jobs massacre would give the green light to employers everywhere to escalate their attacks.
The initial response from the RMT in pushing for the courts to resolve the dispute is totally inadequate. Labour’s move to force a vote on workers’ rights in a right wing Parliament is simply hopeless.
It is time for the RMT and Nautilus to organise militant action. Ships should be occupied, ports blockaded, work associated with P&O embargoed. A consumer boycott of P&O services should be organised as part of a wider solidarity campaign.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch is, however, wrong to talk of the need ‘to protect all British workers’ as is Nautilus boss Mark Dickinson’s ‘betrayal of British workers’. Workers are not being attacked for being ‘British’.
Indeed 90% of the workers in Dubai are from South Asia and Africa. They have their passports taken, work incredible hours for the lowest pay imaginable and during the pandemic were abandoned by the likes of DP World with no money for food or the airfare home. This was not a ‘betrayal’ of Arab workers but super-exploitation.
The unions should organise delegations of workers to persuade agency staff not to scab. All credit to the agency worker Mark Canet-Baldwin who refused to board the ferry at Cairnryan port, when he discovered ‘he had been lied to’ in taking other people’s jobs.
Finally we should demand the nationalization of P&O and the port industry as a whole. No compensation for the owners and workers should run the ports in the interests of workers and passengers, not for profit.