P&O Ferries: Why UK law alone fails to protect workers

P&O’s sudden dismissal of staff has raised serious questions about the treatment of workers under current UK laws, and the inadequacies of the protection that is offered. Catherine Rowett, Spokesperson for Work, Employment and Social Security reports.

P&O Ferries
Catherine Rowett

A fortnight ago, the country erupted in fury as the news broke that P&O ferries had sacked 800 staff without warning, and brought in private enforcement officers, to get the workers to vacate the ships on which they were living. It was, according to the now widely-hated boss of the firm, Peter Hebblethwaite, ‘the only way to save the company’. 

He had not, he admitted, considered taking a salary cut himself, or refusing his bonus. He had not replaced himself with a low paid agency worker. In the committee hearing, MPs found themselves using terms like ‘shameless criminal’ and ‘corporate thuggery’ to describe his actions. He had knowingly chosen not to consult the RMT union, despite knowing that he was required by law to do so. He blatantly acknowledged that the reason was that he knew that they would not get the proposed solution through the unions. So they didn’t try.

The Government was caught on the back foot, as usual, despite having apparently had warning of what the company was planning to do. Were they caught on the hop because, as they claimed, they didn’t know it would be done in such a blatantly illegal way? 

It’s true that we’d hardly expect a company to break the law on the grounds that what they wanted was disallowed by the law. But do they mean that it would be OK, as long as the firing and rehiring were done legally and properly? Because as things stand, we do not have any proper legislation against fire and rehire procedures.

What has emerged from this? Firstly, the Government has noticed that the requirement for unions to be consulted is important. That is a start. But let’s notice that it needs to be for real, not a sham, and not ‘at the employer’s convenience’. 

Second, the Government has noticed that some loopholes in our minimum wage legislation needed to be closed, to cover workers on ferries. That loophole is currently being plugged, for ferries operating from UK ports. Late, but better late than never. 

Notice that we also need other similar loopholes to be addressed, such as in wages and working conditions for seasonal agricultural workers.

Once upon a time, there were some highly respected British companies who took pride in the working conditions and ethical or environmental standards they upheld. These companies aimed not just to be minimally within the law, but to set a gold standard, with fairness built into their practices. I’m thinking of Lever Brothers, who built the Port Sunlight village for their workers, Quaker firms such as Cadburys, who built the Bournville Estate, and Colmans in Norwich. 

Such ethical and socially responsible approaches gave these companies a household reputation as good employers. By contrast, Peter Hebblethwaite, and his superiors in the parent company, have done huge damage to the reputation of P&O Ferries. Many of us will not want to travel on their ferries. But notice that the partygate scandal makes it hard for the Tories to be properly shocked at blatant ignoring of the rules. What leg can they stand on, if someone says, ‘we didn’t like this law, so we broke it’? 

And besides, their problem runs deeper, because it’s successive Conservative governments, along with New Labour, who have degraded our worker protections over many years, especially by tying the hands of the unions in a variety of ways, and by increasing the number of people in jobs where belonging to the union is scarcely possible.

Rules about ballots, the turnout for ballots, and rules against striking in solidarity, are designed to outlaw practices that have been important sources of power for workers in the past. The more vulnerable and precarious their employment, the more these destructive rules have inhibited workers from taking industrial action. 

Witness the current UCU industrial action at universities – on ‘Four Fights’ and in defence of USS pensions. The Four Fights illustrates the way in which several concurrent threats to working conditions make it harder to protest. People are affected in various ways and the precarious staff, low pay, and reliance on well-motivated people who care about their research and their students more than themselves — continuing to give good service despite decades of real terms falling wages — undermines the power of the workforce. It also makes it hard to get a good turnout in voting for action. Meanwhile, the USS pensions dispute is met with a wall of unscrupulous misrepresentation of the financial situation, on the part of the Pension scheme bosses and the UUK Vice-Chancellors, directly at odds with expert research available in their own universities. 

We do have some worker protections in UK law. We inherited some from the EU, and not all of it has gone yet. We do have a minimum wage law, though it is not a real living wage, and it will nowhere near suffice for the current rises in the cost of living. 

But the law alone is not enough. 

We need to hold employers to account, and one of the best ways is through strong unions and strong privileges for union members to call out solidarity strikes and action. Another way is through protests and demonstrations – so, we need to resist legislation that restricts the right to protest in ways that are disruptive to companies and CEOs. A third way is through international protections, such as human rights provisions, and (while we were members) EU legislation. 

We need all these things – none of them are dispensable – especially while we have a government that shows in its actions that it cares only to ensure that the rich get richer at the expense of both the planet and the working classes. 

Let’s not be taken in by the crocodile tears.