Conrad Landin | Scuppered · LRB 22 March 2022

When the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized moments after leaving the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium on 6 March 1987, 193 passengers and crew were killed. Newspapers across the world carried the image of the ferrylying on its side. Its operator’s name, Townsend Thoresen, was emblazoned across the hull; the initials ‘TT’ were displayed on the funnel. Shipping bosses swiftly ditched the Townsend Thoresen brand and repainted its other vessels with the name and colours of its holding company, P&O European Ferries.

When P&O summarily sacked eight hundred seafarers last Thursday and replaced them with agency labour, largely from abroad, its trading name met the PR catastrophe it was created to avert. Like the cost of enhanced redundancy terms, the impact on the corporation’s image appears to have been ‘priced in’. P&O is now a subsidiary of DP World, a Dubai-based logistics giant with operations across the ‘value chain’ of shipping and cargo. If its current brand name gets tarnished, it has others.

Ministers have joined opposition parties and unions in questioning the legality of the sackings, but it seems there is little the law can do to force a reversal. Any fines would be a drop in the ocean for DP World, which turned over $8.5 billion in 2020 and has assets worth three times that. Individual directors cannot be held liable for failing to consult workers over redundancies. Bosses can face prosecution for failing to inform the secretary of state of more than a hundred job losses, but the penalties are unclear and the government may choose not to pursue the case.

There are other avenues for taking action against P&O and its parent company. DP World operates Britain’s second and third biggest ports, at Southampton and Tilbury, though ministers will not be inclined to risk the fallout from sanctioning the operators of such vital links in the supply chain. Revoking P&O’s operating licence wouldn’t be consistent with the government’s steadfast refusal to ban ‘fire and rehire’ practices.

Yet the maritime unions RMT and Nautilus hope that, with public pressure, ministers could be forced to act. At a demonstration in Dover, the Conservative MP, Natalie Elphicke, joined in chants of ‘shame on you’ before realising they were directed at her. Whether or not they are themselves directly affected by P&O’s redundancies, seafarers and their families are likely to worry that other employers will follow suit. Labour proposed a motion in Parliament yesterday condemning the sackings, calling for the government to cancel contracts with P&O and demanding a ban on ‘fire and rehire’. It passed in the Commons without opposition. But the vote is non-binding, and the government whipped its MPs to abstain.

Since the RMT first raised the alarm over P&O’s sackings, its social media accounts have been bombarded with messages pointing to the union’s support for Brexit. Some went so far as to say that workers were getting what they deserved, while others suggested they had been duped by a sinister and ideologically blinded leadership into weakening their employment rights.

It’s true that Brexit, like Covid, has had a significant impact on sea traffic between Britain and the rest of Europe. But EU membership would be no deterrent to P&O’s actions. Britain’s employment law has not changed since Brexit. And, shocking as P&O’s methods may be (there were reports of security guards wearing balaclavas and brandishing handcuffs), it is far from the first shipping giant to replace its workforce with agency labour. RMT has campaigned for years against the use of ‘flags of convenience’, through which shipping companies are allowed to pay workers at rates well below the minimum wage by registering their vessels abroad. The union has alleged that some P&O agency workers will be paid as little as £1.80 an hour.

Over the past two decades, Irish Ferries has made repeated attempts – with some success – to replace workers with cheaper labour from Eastern Europe. Far from protecting employees in such situations, a series of European Court of Justice rulings have limited workers’ rights to go on strike if they are undercut by a workforce from another EU state: such action is considered an infringement of the free movement of capital and labour. One of these cases, Viking Line, was pursued by a ferry operator against trade unionists who took action against the company’s decision to replace Finnish workers with Estonian ones.

The shadow of the Zeebrugge disaster has also raised fears that the mass sackings will compromise safety. Martyn Gray, an executive officer at Nautilus, told me that tours of duty had been doubled for the new agency workers. ‘The company itself commissioned a fatigue study in 2012 which said that one-week rotation on Dover to Calais was the absolute maximum – any higher caused unacceptable fatigue,’ he said. ‘Nothing has changed in terms of human evolution. The ships have got older and more prone to failure. So why do they think agency crews can now operate on fatigue-inducing tours of duty on poverty wages?’

P&O’s actions last Thursday have been compared to the 1986 Wapping dispute, when Rupert Murdoch’s News International secretly moved production to a new site in east London in order to smash the print unions, locking out the existing workforce in the process. Britain’s trade union movement mobilised to resist the move – but Murdoch still won, partially because he enlisted the support of EETPU, the right-wing electricians’ union, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s government. In acting so brazenly, apparently without any institutional support, P&O has banked on the comparative weakness of the modern labour movement. It is up to the RMT and Nautilus – along with everyone else who wants to see the survival of industrial relations – to prove them wrong.

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