This week, the UK Government outlined plans to bring in legislation to address seafarer wages in response to P&O Ferries’ firing of 800 seafarers and replacing them with a lower paid agency workforce.
Nearly two months after the company suddenly sacked its seafarers, the main maritime unions have continued their protests and boycotts.
The passenger service on the Dover/Calais route resumed service this week, following UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s (MCA) inspections, which saw one ropax, ‘Pride of Kent’, detained three times for deficiencies.
‘Pride of Kent’ became the second vessel on the route to have her detention lifted on 9th May. The 30-year-old vessel received 47 deficiencies, including 13 that were grounds for detention during three failed inspections and was detained for 42 days, according to the Paris MOU.
She resumed service on 12th May.
“P&O Ferries’ disgraceful actions do not represent the principles of our world-leading maritime sector, and changing the law on seafarer pay protection is a clear signal to everyone that we will not tolerate economic abuse of workers,” said UK Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, who has announced a consultation period on the proposed measures. “We will stop at nothing to make sure seafarers in UK ports are being paid fairly.”
In addition, a number of unions and global union federations had written to the International Labour Organisation (ILO — part of the UN) to ask it to urgently intervene on behalf of the 800 seafarers who were allegedly illegally fired and cruelly mistreated by P&O Ferries.
The unions argued that the UK Government’s failure to enforce relevant labour laws and punitive sanctions to ensure compliance following P&O Ferries’ illegal firing of seafarers without consultation, is a serious violation of the ILO’s principles concerning the freedom of association and collective bargaining.
The government has also contravened international treaties the UK is bound by, they claimed.
The organisations included the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), seafarers’ unions Nautilus International and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT); the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC); the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who jointly file an official complaint with the ILO about the UK Government perceived lack of action.
They considered the matter so serious that they have also requested the urgent personal intervention of ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, asking him to point out to the UK its failure to abide by internationally recognised labour standards.
“P&O Ferries’ CEO has admitted the company behaved illegally when it fired 800 seafarers without warning in March, and he has told parliament he would do the same again,” said Stephen Cotton, ITF General Secretary (pictured). “P&O Ferries has behaved in the most calculated and egregious way and expects to get away with it.”
“P&O Ferries has run roughshod over these workers’ right to freedom of association and to collective bargaining,” Cotton added. “That’s the consequence of this company blatantly ignoring their legal requirement to consult with the seafarers and their unions, before it sacked them en-masse over Zoom, escorted them off the ships with handcuff-trained security guards and replaced them with a non-unionised workforce on just a fraction of the pay.”
Cotton said unions were concerned that under UK law workers could be financially pressured to sign away their rights to legally challenge an employers’ lawbreaking.
“P&O Ferries ‘priced in’ breaking the law and then set about blackmailing the seafarers with gag-order packages worth more than if the workers took P&O to court and won a statutory settlement, buying their legal silence and snuffing out their rights,” he said.
Cotton also said that although P&O’s actions were unethical, there were few routes for unions to challenge the actions under current UK law.
“Through the ILO, we’re demanding that the UK strengthens their employment laws so that workers can actually rely on the rights the government says they have.
“There needs to be a genuine deterrent to rogue employers. We want to see directors being disbarred if they wilfully ignore workers’ right to consultation. There shouldn’t be a cap on the compensation a worker can receive for an employer failing to consult. It needs to be removed so that courts can apply penalties that fit the crime in cases like P&O Ferries’ which is fire and rehire on steroids,” he said.
Cotton said the UK Government needed to allow unions and workers to seek injunctive relief from courts, which could pause controversial firings and even reverse sackings until an employer conducts the proper consultation.
Until the UK makes these changes to its laws, the country is in violation of ILO Conventions 87 and 98. ILO C98 obliges the country to ‘encourage and promote’ collective bargaining machinery, stipulating that all ‘workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination’, the ITF alleged.
RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, added: “Gangster capitalists like P&O Ferries are trashing the law and maritime safety standards in order to make a quick buck. This cannot be tolerated. Employers like P&O Ferries, hell-bent on attacking workers rights to profit their owners in Dubai, must face effective legal consequences at the ILO level.”
Nautilus International general secretary, Mark Dickinson, commented: “Fifty days into this self-imposed crisis, P&O Ferries CEO, Peter Hebblethwaite, who admitted to breaking the law, has not paid any price for the illegal sacking of our members. He’s got to go.”
ETF General Secretary, Livia Spera, said: “The UK Government’s failure to enforce their labour laws sets a dangerous precedent for rogue employers across Europe. Ministers must step in, clean up this mess, so we never see another workers’ life ripped apart by such callous and calculated industrial relations practices.”
Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, said: “Nobody should be treated like disposable labour. But our worker protections are so weak that employers with deep pockets can simply bypass them.”
“This national scandal should be a turning point for workers’ rights in the UK. But Boris Johnson has failed to deliver his long-promised employment bill to strengthen workers’ rights. Working people have had enough. They need better protection and greater dignity at work. And rogue employers who break the law must be hit by tougher penalties and higher fines than the current laws allow,” she said.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said: “Decent jobs, freedom of association and collective bargaining must be at the heart of employment laws. Labour laws must protect workers. Now is the time for the UK Government to stamp out fire and rehire, bolster their laws and enforce heavy sanctions on companies who fail to comply.”
The RMT has also slammed P&O Ferries’ CEO Hebblethwaite’s alleged promotion to a directorship, as revealed at the UK’s Companies House.
Hebblethwaite who admitted breaching employment law during a UK Transport Select Committee hearing in March, by sacking 800 seafarers and replacing them with agency crews, was appointed to the new post on 1st April, according to a filing at Companies House.
According to the union, Hebblethwaite already earns £325,000 per year and has not ruled out taking a bonus.
As mentioned above, ‘Pride of Kent’ had failed safety inspections on three occasions and two other P&O Ferries have also failed MCA inspections since the mass sacking of the experienced local crew.
The catalogue of safety failures on the P&O ships include fire safety equipment not being installed, poorly maintained lifeboats and inadequate certification of the agency crew employed by Malta-based International Fleet Management (IFM), the RMT claimed.
Lynch said: “Gangster capitalists should not be rewarded for their appalling employment practices; they should be punished with the full force of law.
“Promoting Peter Hebblethwaite is a complete insult to workers everywhere, especially our members in Dover, Hull, Larne, Cairnryan and Liverpool who continue to deal with the consequences of P&O Ferries appalling assault on their jobs and livelihoods.
“Hebblethwaite is paid a basic £325,000 per year, whilst Indian Able Seafarers on the ‘Pride of Canterbury’ are paid a basic of £3.97 per hour. This naked corporate greed on our key ferry routes cannot be allowed to continue.
“Criminal and civil investigations of P&O’s actions are underway but there is clearly no depth to the contempt that P&O Ferries and its parent company has for UK employment law and our seafarers, not to mention (Transport Secretary) Grant Shapps ‘9-point plan.’
“P&O and Hebblethwaite are specialists in failure and the Government has to take further action to reinstate sacked seafarers and to prevent further carnage in the UK ferries sector,” he concluded.