Twelve years of Conservative government has emboldened predator employers like P&O Ferries
Thursday 18 March was a turning point for workers’ rights in this country.
Though the odds are stacked against workers and the system has always permitted bad bosses, I was still shocked to my core when I received calls from seafarers and the National Secretary of the RMT just after 7am to say that handcuffed-trained private security – some equipped with tasers and balaclavas – were at the quayside in Hull, Dover, Liverpool and Cairnryan.
It was an act of aggression against working people not known since the Thatcher government’s savage attacks on trade unions.
The behaviour of P&O Ferries, and their parent company DP World, was long in the making. After 12 years of Conservative government, and their recent failure to outlaw fire and rehire, predator employers like them have been emboldened.
800 British seafarers still do not have their jobs and are wondering how they will earn their crust
Pay, terms, and conditions at sea have been ignored for far too long. They are of critical importance, because they show what rogue operators would implement on land if they thought they were able to get away with it.
My late father, Ken Turner, a full time official with the National Union of Seamen (the predecessor to the RMT) for more than three decades, spent years campaigning against unscrupulous ship owners, and for good reason. He saw the tragedy that poor regulation causes when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in 1987, just moments after leaving port, with 193 lives lost. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in peacetime, and an inquest concluded crew fatigue had been a major factor.
I am deeply concerned that another, similar disaster is on the horizon, which is why it is so vital that we crack down on the exploitation of overseas agency crews, who usually work longer stints at sea with fewer breaks, and close the loopholes which allow these sharp practises.
We will closely study the Transport Secretary’s package of measures to make sure they cut the mustard. But I am encouraged that action is, at long last, beginning to be taken. The outrage of the trade unions, the entire labour movement, and the public, have forced the government to finally begin to reign these companies in.
However, if justice is to be served to the 800 sacked seafarers and another scandal like this is to be prevented, there is so much more to do, and there isn’t a moment to waste.
DP World, despite its close links with the government of Dubai, is still set to receive millions in public money through its freeport contracts. Taxpayers’ money should not be handed to companies which treat workers with utter contempt, and the UK government and any relevant legislation with such disregard.
The weekend marked 40 years since the Falklands War. The MV Norland, the predecessor ship to the Pride of Hull which has been at the centre of this scandal, was brought into active service during the conflict, transporting troops and supplying the Army and Royal Navy. In my Parliamentary Office, a painting of the Norland under heavy fire hangs proudly.
I am reminded daily of this country and my city’s proud seafaring heritage, and the burning need for seafarers to once again be treated with decency and respect. For the 12 years I have been an MP, I have been banging on the doors of successive maritime ministers to get reforms underway. Given the deplorable act of industrial relations savagery by P&O in the last week, the Secretary of State opened his door to me. The process of reform has started, but 800 British seafarers still do not have their jobs and are wondering how they will earn their crust from next.
I was heartened to see this terrible attack spark outrage even on the Tory benches. Let’s hope it has woken parliamentarians up to the worst excesses of predatory businesses.
In any event, whether it’s at the ports or in Parliament, we the Labour Party will keep fighting until those decent, hard-working and proud British seafarers get the respect they deserve from ship owners getting rich off of their hard graft.
Karl Turner is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East.
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