What next for P&O after brutal sackings?

P&O Ferries has been condemned for the summary firing of almost 800 workers last week

A protest by sacked P&O workers and their supporters
Sacked P&O workers and their supporters protest along the main road to the port of Dover on 23 March
(Image credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Ministers and unions united to condemn the summary firing of 786 workers last week by P&O Ferries. The workers were told in a three-minute video message last Thursday that they were losing their jobs “with immediate effect”. Security guards then went aboard to escort crew off the ships.

P&O, which is owned by Dubai-based DP World, said the redundancies were vital to ensure its survival as a “viable business”; last year P&O recorded losses of £100m. Sacked crew were replaced by cheaper foreign agency workers. Ministers said they would look at whether P&O had broken employment laws that require companies to alert Whitehall before making largescale redundancies. However, a leaked memo suggested that ministers had in fact been made aware of the plans. On Tuesday, P&O said that it was offering staff an “enhanced severance package” worth a total of £36.5m.

“P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 seafarers was a cold-hearted, brutal affair,” said The Guardian. The decision – which reportedly came from the very top of DP World, owned by Dubai’s ruling family – represents “the unacceptable face of capitalism today”. The mass redundancies “are probably not even lawful”: P&O has failed to meet obligations such as consulting staff about their intentions. “The Government must not give the green light to such acts.” Ministers should “threaten to end” DP World’s two contracts for the UK’s new freeports “unless P&O relents”.

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“Businesses sometimes need to make harsh decisions,” said The Times. But this was callous and “unethical”. Yes, business dipped during Covid, but P&O pocketed £33m in emergency aid from the UK, and its parent company, the shipping giant DP World, is awash with cash: last month it announced record revenue, up 15% to $3.8bn. Brexit supporters used to argue that leaving the EU would drive up wages by curbing the flow of cheap foreign labour. The case of P&O suggests otherwise.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed in a speech last month that markets were “a moral force for good”, said James Beattie in The Mirror. Tell that to staff at P&O. However loudly Tory MPs complain about P&O’s wrongdoings, their party must share the blame for the dismissals. In recent years, it has deliberately weakened labour laws and “given the green light to the worst aspects of capitalism”. Last year, for example, ministers blocked a bill that would have outlawed just the kind of “fire and rehire” methods used by P&O.

Boris Johnson pledged to make Britain “the best place in the world to work”, said James Moore in The Independent. Yet there’s still no sign of the employment bill that was promised to protect workers in a post-Brexit world, and ministers have refused to curtail the use of zero-hours contracts. Instead, deregulation now seems to be the order of the day. Welcome to “Singapore-on-Thames”.

The story illustrates “the perils of globalisation”, said Patrick O’Flynn in the Daily Express. When owners do not live in “the communities inhabited by their staff”, it becomes easier to see staff “as just another inert factor of production and treat them accordingly”; workers’ rights are notoriously scarce in Dubai. But unfortunately, the Government’s options are limited. The legal situation is complex (P&O’s ships are flagged in foreign ports) and ministers can’t very well ban the company from our ports, when it carries 15% of the UK’s freight traffic.

I see some grounds for optimism, said Tom Clark in Prospect. If we were all to shun P&O Ferries for our holidays – the unions have called for a boycott – it might change attitudes in the boardroom. What’s more, the loud condemnation of P&O from both Left and Right (even from Nigel Farage) could be a sign that the “long reign of neoliberalism” is at last nearing its end. Let’s hope so. “The tide has been running against working people for too long.”

According to P&O, nearly 600 of the sacked staff are discussing severance offers, and 40 employees are in line for payouts of over £100,000. Workers say they have been warned they will only be paid if they agree not to talk to the media. There are also concerns about a pension scheme for 20,000 present and former British seamen: it has emerged that P&O Ferries owes the Merchant Navy Ratings Pension Fund about £140m. P&O shoulders about 30% of the fund’s liabilities, but had deferred contributions owing to its fragile finances.

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