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One year after the P&O Ferries scandal, rogue employers remain free to treat workers appallingly

(Alamy)

4 min read

One year ago today, almost 800 dedicated seafarers were sacked by P&O Ferries unlawfully over video call.

The mass sacking was a national scandal. It unleashed an outpouring of anger across the country – from unions, MPs, ministers and the general public. It was little wonder – the charge sheet was absolutely damning. P&O Ferries flagrantly broke the law in four clear ways.

There is nothing stopping another P&O Ferries scandal from happening again

They failed to consult with unions as the law requires. They broke unfair dismissal laws. They failed to notify the government or relevant authorities. And the directors breached their legal duties. Not only that, P&O Ferries exploited loopholes in minimum wage law, paying agency staff a pittance. And shamefully, the company also breached international safety standards in the wake of mass sacking by failing to properly train their newly recruited staff on safety procedures.

This scandal was cowboy capitalism and union-busting at its very worst. It should have ushered in a new era of stronger employment rights in Britain.

But one year on since the disgraceful actions of P&O Ferries, despite talking tough, the government has let the company off the hook.

Of the four clear breaches of the law, ministers have failed to act on every single one. They haven’t punished P&O Ferries and have done next to nothing to stop other companies following suit and treating their staff like disposable labour.

Make no mistake. There is nothing stopping another P&O Ferries scandal from happening again. But the egregious failures by government don’t stop there. Not only have ministers left the company’s flagrant law-breaking unpunished, they are now giving rogue employers like P&O Ferries a helping hand to treat workers appallingly.

In the wake of the scandal, ministers ditched the Employment Bill. This was long-promised legislation that was meant to make Britain the best place to work in in the world after Britain left the European Union. But not content with standing still on labour laws, ministers then began their outright assault on workers’ rights.

First, they put forward the Retained EU Law Bill, which threatens to take a wrecking ball to key workplace protections like holiday pay, safe limits on working time and equal pay for women and men.

Then they introduced the Strikes Bill, which – after the government’s agency worker regulations – represented another brazen attack on the right to strike and threatened public sector workers with the sack for exercising that basic right.

Both pieces of legislation are currently making their way through Parliament. Both have had MPs, Lords and prominent rights groups queuing up to slam the Bills. And both make a mockery of the government’s pledge to make Britain the best place in the world to work. 

The government won an election on the promise of a major upgrade in workers’ rights. Rishi Sunak and his government would do well to remember that – they simply have no mandate to rip up rights in the workplace. The weight of public opinion is clear: British people want stronger workers’ rights.

A massive eight in 10 Brits support protecting and enhancing all workers’ rights which have been retained since we left the EU – including 81 per cent of Conservative voters. And three in four back banning fire and rehire and zero hours contracts. That’s overwhelming nationwide support for boosting workers’ rights.

So one year after the P&O Ferries scandal, our message to government is loud and clear. It’s time to do right by the 800 Seafarers that were unlawfully sacked and make sure this is never allowed to happen again.

That means finally dragging our outdated labour laws into the 21st century – starting with fair pay agreements to prevent a race to the bottom in low paid industries like the ferries sector and a clamp down on fire and rehire-style practices.

And it means ditching the Retained EU Law Bill and Strikes Bill for good.

 

Paul Nowak, TUC general secretary

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