Voices: How to ensure the P&O scandal a year ago never happens again

P&O has faced no consequences whatsoever (PA)
P&O has faced no consequences whatsoever (PA)

The sight of security guards, apparently wearing balaclavas and wielding handcuffs, forcing seafarers off their boats and into immediate unemployment will live long in the memory.

P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 seafarers was a cold-hearted, brutal affair. Staff, some of whom had served the company for decades, lost their jobs without warning and were immediately replaced with agency workers being paid a third of the minimum wage.

A year ago today, the company summarily – and illegally – dismissed their entire British crew without notice or consultation prompting calls for boycotts and legal redress. The incident even provoked the condemnation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who called it “inhumane and unethical”.

Today marks the anniversary of this outrageous act. But what has happened since rogue bosses sacked hundreds of staff instantly, and what has the government done to stop it from ever happening again? The answer is not nearly enough.

The firm’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, publicly admitted to breaking the law. The then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said he had to go. But one year on, Hebblethwaite remains in his role and P&O has faced no consequences whatsoever. They trampled over the rights of British workers. They came to parliament and boasted about it. Then, they said they would do it all over again.

This is not just about P&O escaping without sanction. Whichever way you look at it, the message to rogue employers is simple: you can get away with this. For weeks after the mass sackings, there was outcry from the Conservative benches. But in the past year, the government has done nothing to stop P&O Ferries from enacting their exploitative crewing model, or other operators from following suit.

While P&O represents the most egregious example of fire and rehire in the pandemic, the practice continues to spread like wildfire. The TUC estimates that one in 10 workers – almost 3 million people – have been subject to fire and rehire tactics. Working people deserve respect and dignity at work, but this can’t happen if they are under constant threat of having their jobs taken away.

The government is now consulting on a code of practice on fire and rehire. But despite their promises, it won’t ban the behaviour judging that it is still “acceptable in some circumstances”. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

So, rather than continue to give fire and rehire the greenlight, we’ve pledged to end fire and rehire through our New Deal for Working People and today we set out how.

It’s simple: we will make it illegal for firms to fire workers then re-engage them on worse terms, and illegal for firms to use the threat of the sack to bounce workers into agreeing to these. We’ll do this first by requiring employers to properly consult and reach agreements with their staff about changes to contracts. No one should have changes to their working patterns thrust upon them without a say.

We’ll also boost protections to prevent employers from being able to dismiss workers if they don’t agree to worse terms and conditions. More widely, we’ll ensure trade unions are able to act to protect terms and conditions when fire and rehire tactics are being used. Like having an umbrella in the rain, this will ensure workers have the support and protection they need.

The P&O scandal was also supposed to draw a line in the sand for seafarers’ rights. But for too many low-cost operators, their business model is based on exploitation. That is why we will introduce a strong, legally-binding Seafarers Charter that smashes the business model dependent on the cruel manipulation of vulnerable workers from around the world. This will mandate an agreement between unions, government and employers on minimum protections for pay, roster patterns, crewing levels, pensions, taxation and training.

Finally, we need justice for the P&O workers. The Insolvency Service’s investigation into the circumstances of the P&O scandal, which could still disqualify Hebblethwaite and other senior personnel from serving as company directors, continues to drag on. Labour will bring forward this investigation to ensure justice can be served and make sure lessons are learnt so this is never allowed to happen again.

This five-point plan to end fire and rehire will ensure workers can be safe in the knowledge that their terms and conditions won’t be ripped up before their eyes. It will also benefit the many employers who do right by their staff, supporting businesses to compete on quality and innovation rather than in a race to the bottom that P&O Ferries have so cynically exploited.

The anniversary of the P&O scandal may not be one to celebrate, but must mark a moment of real change.

Never again should any company think that they can treat British workers with such contempt.

Angela Rayner MP is the Labour deputy leader and shadow secretary of state for the future of work. Louise Haigh MP is the shadow secretary of state for transport