P&O Spirit of France at Dover. P&O Spirit of France at Dover. Photo: 2013Harry - WikiCommons / cropped from originals / shared under license CC BY-SA 2.5 / license link below

The sacking of ferry workers in British ports is an attack on workers’ rights, argues Richard Allday, and we must unite to defeat the employers

The shocking news that broke today, that P&O is sacking 800 seafarers with immediate effect, has implications for every worker in Britain. The company has issued redundancies with no notice – in contravention of the law – and says it is replacing existing staff with those on lower wages from overseas. These replacement workers from overseas were waiting in buses to take over from the sacked staff in an outrageous attack on the employment rights not just of P&O workers but on all of us. If the company gets away with this it will severely worsen workers’ rights in Britain and will lead to further exploitation of both overseas and British workers.

The company’s explanation, that it is currently losing £100 million a year, does not hold water. It has assets worldwide of over £20bn (that’s £20 thousand million). Reuters announced, last summer (19.08.21) that first-half profits had jumped – by 52% – to £342 million, year on year. Seven days ago, Container News commenting on the group’s ‘strong financial results for the last year’ quoted the CEO (Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem) as saying ‘it is important that the growth was broad-based across the company’s terminals and logistics assets’. He went on to express his optimism for the coming year, as it has ‘already seen an encouraging start to 2022’ and ‘we expect to see our portfolio to continue to deliver growth’.

All this sounds remarkably upbeat from a company that then summarily sacks 800 staff from one of its ‘logistics assets’ because it ‘can’t afford the losses’. It is an open attempt at wage-cutting and at union-busting. Everyone in the trade union movement has to get behind the P&O workers and their union the RMT.

There are many questions to be answered

  • Downing Street claimed this evening that it ‘was not given any advance notice by P&O of the company plans’ – but Transport Minister Robert Courts, replying to a question from Labour MP Justin Madden, told parliament: ‘The government was first informed of this during yesterday evening’. Which statement is the truth (silly question really; one statement was from Boris Johnson)?
  • How long has this operation been planned? You don’t just ring up your average security firm and say, ‘We’ve got a job on to clear 600 shocked and maybe angry ex-employees; we need handcuff and teargas training, and enough of you to clear 600 staff off of half a dozen sites.’
  • What was the security firm – because it should be boycotted from any workplace that it currently services?
  • Teargas is an offensive weapon – so what response are we going to see from our guardians of the law?
  • What is the trade union response to this going to be? All we will get from Johnson or Starmer will be (to a greater or lesser degree simulated) moral outrage. Without a serious response, there is every chance of this being the new model for ‘industrial relations’.

The company claims it is going to offer ‘enhanced severance terms’ to compensate for the abruptness of the sackings., and the unions involved (the RMT for the 600 ratings, and Nautilus for the 200 officers) have said they are going to take legal action. The problem is that by the time the legal system has churned through (and the lawyers have taken their fees) this will be history. There needs to be a fight now.

There is real anger over these sackings – even reflected in parliament where MPs from the main parties have condemned the move. But fine words are not sufficient – we need action to stop P&O.

P&O is owned by DP World – the same company that owns the ports of London Gateway and Southampton. DP World employs 50,000 workers – and every one of them now knows just how secure their job is.

Secondary action – in other words in solidarity with strikers – is supposedly outlawed in Britain but it will need to take place to win this dispute. Public opinion is on our side and we can make it impossible for them to enforce this law. All RMT workers, all dockers, and other transport should refuse to work with any DP World subsidiary, or security company involved – and demand their employers commit to not repeating it. General Secretaries should shout this out.

There are demonstrations called by the sacked seafarers, tomorrow, at the ports of Larne, Hull, and Dover, starting at 12 noon, and the Port of Liverpool at 1 pm. Any reader who can, should be on those demonstrations, make them as loud and angry as possible, and make the demand: shut the ports until the P&O workers are reinstated.

No docker should cast off the lines, no tug should assist, no pilot should navigate, a DP World vessel while 800 seafarers are on the beach.

This company received huge amounts of furlough payments from the government but now is throwing workers on the scrapheap. This is an attack on us all and we have to fight back. It is for the seafarers – but also for all of us.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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