P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 seafarers was a cold-hearted, brutal affair. Staff lost their jobs without warning. The first inkling many had was when they began watching a corporate video message. Some were marched off ships by security guards wearing balaclavas and carrying handcuffs. Unions said P&O had bussed in lower-paid contract staff from abroad to replace them. This is a betrayal of a workforce who kept Britain supplied throughout the pandemic.
If there was an unacceptable face of capitalism today, it would be worn by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the emir of Dubai and billionaire head of the state that owns and controls P&O. The ferry operator’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, its third in three years, said the company had to sack workers and replace them with cheaper crew to remain viable. This does not stack up. P&O’s owner DP World, the state-owned ports operator, was flush with cash and could afford to pay sailors properly. This month DP World announced bumper profits of $896m (£751m) in 2021, up from $846m in 2020.
The mass sackings are probably not even lawful. The company did not give ministers the legally mandated 45 days’ notice of its intent. Failure to do so is a criminal offence. What P&O has attempted to do, it seems, is to offer compensation packages that purport to pay their way out of the company’s legal obligations, such as consulting staff. This was probably done to prevent trade unions from seeking an injunction to stop the sackings. Such sops won’t wash with the public, who know that P&O has acted in a cruel, inhumane and unethical manner.
The government must not give the green light to such acts. Yet the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has gone no further than rebuking the company. A junior minister suggested P&O should hand back the £10m in furlough cash that it took. Without meaningful sanction, ministers are washing their hands of the episode and letting, in effect, a foreign state sack workers in Britain from secure jobs and replace them with agency staff. If Boris Johnson is prepared to level down employment rights to those suffered by workers in the Gulf, so much for promises that post-Brexit Britain would be “the best place in the world to work”.
P&O’s Dubai owners could be forced to do the right thing and rehire the 800 seafarers. Ministers might threaten to end the two freeport contracts it has with DP World unless P&O relents. Mr Johnson was forewarned about the company’s plans a day before they were enacted – just as he left meetings in the United Arab Emirates. It’s not a stretch to think that he was told while there. After all, Sheikh Mohammed is the UAE’s prime minister. Mr Johnson was seeking help to ease rocketing oil prices. It would be a tawdry deal if he traded away workers’ livelihoods for a few barrels of oil.
Perhaps Mr Johnson thinks that Britain’s trade unions need to be cowed into submission before inflation kicks in. Maybe he thinks that DP World was right to back a £147m deal to sponsor European golf while there is a £146m deficit in the pension fund for P&O retirees. He may reason that Dubai is impervious to the reputational damage sustained by a campaign associating the emirate with the toxic decisions made by UK-based executives. But the bullying tactics of the 1980s cannot be resurrected today. The world has moved on. When those who own or run companies enrich themselves extravagantly, heedless of the cost to their current and former staff, trust erodes and capitalism itself becomes threatened. Curing this disease calls for the public shaming of P&O and its owners – as well as consequential threats. The sailors should be reinstated.