The P&O Ferries Mass British Sackings

On Thursday last week P&O Ferries sacked all its 800 British crew members without notice in order to replace them with lower-cost agency crews. The sacked workers learned of their redundancy via a pre-recorded video message on Zoom.

The Tory government has been generous to the Dubai-owned P&O Ferries, who were given £33m/$43.4m in emergency funding by the government to ensure freight kept being transported. The government also paid P&O for the furlough of 1,100 British staff during the pandemic.

Crew were told by P&O to disembark passengers and freight before being sent the video message telling them P&O “vessels will be primarily crewed by a third-party crew provider … Your final day of employment is today”.

Crew members, allegedly, were removed from ships by balaclava-wearing private security guards carrying handcuffs in Dover, Kent, and in Larne, near Belfast. Replacement agency workers–thought to have been recruited in the UK and Europe–had already boarded some vessels in Dover the same afternoon as the mass sacking.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said it had taken a “very difficult but necessary decision” to “secure the future viability of our business, which employs an additional 2,200 people, and supports billions in trade in and out of the UK…. We have made a £100m loss year-on-year, which has been covered by our parent [company] DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now”.

DP World last year arranged to sponsor the European golf tour – at a cost of £147m/$193.35m. Two years ago, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the billionaire head of DP World, said P&O Ferries needed £257m/$338m in aid to stave-off collapse and asked the UK government for £150m/$197.3m – all while paying its shareholders £270m/$355.1m. The government declined to meet their request– and 1 month later, DP World/P&O made over 1,000 employees redundant.

The Sultan’s claim rings hollow: DP World has assets worldwide of over £20bn/$26.4bn. Reuters announced in August 2021 that DP World’s first-half profits had jumped – by 52% – to £342m/$460.6m, year on year. The Sultan was quoted recently by Container News on “the group‘s strong financial results for the last year”, saying “it is important that the growth was broad-based across the company’s terminals and logistics assets”. The Sultan exuded optimism for 2022, since the company has “already seen an encouraging start to 2022” and “we expect to see our portfolio to continue to deliver growth”.

Boris “BoJo” Johnson’s official spokesperson said last Thursday: “We weren’t given any notice to this”. However, the spokesperson confirmed the next day that senior officials at the Department for Transport had first been informed about DP World’s plan on Wednesday evening, but had kept the information within a small group, citing their concern about commercial sensitivity.

Two government ministers, the transport secretary Grant Shapps (who has also used the aliases Michael Green and Sebastian Fox) and the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, wrote strongly worded letters about the sackings to someone they assumed was P&O Ferries’ CEO, Robert Woods.

This turned out to be a gaffe— Robert Woods resigned from this position last year, and redrafted letters had to be sent in a hurry to one Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O Ferries’ current CEO.

As is typical these days when government PR is absolutely at the forefront, the misdirected letters were posted by Shapps and Kwarteng as self-publicizing posts on Twitter. They were deleted subsequently. Their gaffe caused much mirth, with the Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael saying: “Shapps has form on getting names wrong. For some time he used to tell people that he was Michael Green”.

The gaffe, and the decision to keep silent when the government had been informed about the mass sackings the day before they occurred, are symptomatic of the Tory “business friendly” approach to international capital, which puts the interests of corporations ahead of its own people.

It is indicative that none of P&O Ferries French-based crew members were sacked. P&O has said the dismissed workers could get their jobs back if they signed-up with the agency now providing crews for P&O. Such a fire and rehire tactic, leading to inferior terms and conditions for workers, would not have worked in France.

The Tory government could have questioned the legality of P&O’s move in jettisoning its British workers in summary fashion, as well as using “handcuff-trained” private security guards to remove any crew members unwilling to leave their ships. Instead, the government said there was little it could do because P&O was making a “business-based decision”.

It was pointed out in the media that such an action should only be undertaken by properly supervised police officers (which of course would not happen in this case, since no criminality on the part of P&O crew members was involved in this episode—if anything, such possible criminality resided with P&O’s management).

The Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, and replacing regular seafarers with untrained crew will create a potential safety risk to passengers.

While P&O has behaved disgracefully, its decision to sack its employees with no regard for any semblance of a proper procedure goes hand in glove with years of the Tory government’s “business friendly” policies.

The Tories have been relentless in weakening workers’ rights, curbing their unions, and acquiescing in the introduction of hostile labour-market practices, citing the need to turn UK into a “Singapore-on-the Thames”.

“Labour flexibility” has led to the introduction of zero-hours contracts, and other outcomes which have benefitted employers at the expense of workers. Ministers have repeatedly refused to end the use of zero-hours contracts.

Fire and rehire is another outcome of this Tory “flexibility”, and probably encouraged P&O to leave its French workers untouched while culling almost a quarter of its British staff. The government’s parliamentary business managers saw to it that a backbench motion to outlaw fire and rehire was not brought to a vote last year.

BoJo has repeatedly promised an employment bill, and mouthed platitudes about protecting workers’ rights and making Britain the best place in the world to work, and so forth. BoJo’s hypocritical banalities notwithstanding, his government has yet to do anything about an employment bill. It is clear he has no desire to do so.

For years the Conservatives have been on very good terms with DP World, just as they have with British-based Russian oligarchs.

Last September, the chancellor of the exchequer/finance minister Rishi Sunak, said he was “thrilled” to approve hundreds of millions of pounds of DP World investment in the “freeports” Thames Gateway and Southampton.

A month later DP World partnered with the Foreign Office’s development finance initiative. DP World has sat on the UK government’s trade advisory group for the last 2 years.

Like the Russian oligarchs, DP World has been given a free run by the Tories, and by virtue of this, inspired to withhold basic labour protections from British workers.

All while making record payments to shareholders.

As the jingoistic British national song goes: “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves”!

Though in this case not for British workers.

However, a huge public outcry is causing the Tories to make some PR moves to show they are not in complete servitude to global corporations.

Last Friday, as protests against P&O’s actions took place at ports across the country, the afore-mentioned business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng warned P&O that it could face an unlimited fine if its mass dismissal is found to have breached the law.

The Dover Conservative MP, Natalie Elphicke, who voted against the abolition of fire and rehire, had the gall to join a protest rally there on behalf of the terminated P&O workers. She was roundly booed and heckled for her hypocrisy.

A somewhat different PR-shaped message, therefore, is emerging from an appalling government which said previously that nothing could be done because DP World/P&O was making “a business-based decision”.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.