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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Outdoor Relief for Capitalism

by New Worker correspondent

IN THESE TIMES of crisis it is good to see that at least one group are doing well. Those who had the wisdom to invest their surplus wealth in bus and rail group FirstGroup can look forward to a healthy dividend despite them not carrying many passengers at present.

FirstGroup runs the West Coast, South Western, Great Western and Transpennine Express rail franchises, and many bus services.

Along with rival Go-Ahead Group, it received £167 million for the purpose of “supporting vital bus services” across England over the next three months. Passenger numbers have declined by 90 per cent, with most contracts for schools and suchlike closed down entirely.

Nevertheless, in most cases local authorities had agreed to continue paying for services at pre-crisis levels, with the bus services operators’ grant also being paid at the same rate before the pandemic.

FirstGroup chief executive officer Matthew Gregory predictably welcomed this handout, saying: “These arrangements will enable us to continue working closely with councils and our other local stakeholders to ensure that key workers can reach their destination, be it hospitals, supermarkets or distribution centres.”

That sounds good – but transport union RMT have discovered that the money will likely be used simply to boost dividends. On the 11th March, as the crisis was beginning, FirstGroup Chair David Martin privately informed investors: “At the moment, in my experience, this is one of the most exciting times, with potentially real deliverables there and money standing behind it.

“Everybody is on the same page in the one direction of maximising shareholder value and providing the ability to create substantial returns to shareholders in the short term.”

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash commented that: “FirstGroup executives are crowing over shareholders’ pay-outs for this year, all ultimately courtesy of the tax payer. This is appalling stuff even by the standards of the privatised rail and bus industry.” He pointed out that this came at a time when even banks are saying they won’t pay dividends.

In contrast: “While rail and bus workers are putting their lives on the line to keep Britain moving FirstGroup are looking to line their pockets. Transport workers and the public will be disgusted and dismayed.”

He concluded by demanding that: “First Group should do the decent thing and immediately rescind their decision to pay out dividends this year.”

On Tuesday the same union accused shipping company P&O Ferries of taking advantage of the crisis to restructure its business to the detriment of the workforce by imposing 20 per cent cut on wages.

P&O have informed RMT that on P&O Ferries’ Irish Sea, North Sea and Dover-Calais fleet, Ratings’ terms and conditions will see pay cuts, the replacement of UK seafarers with foreign crew, a no-strike clauses, statutory redundancy, sick-pay cuts, scrapping benefits for long service and leave restrictions.

P&O hope to apply this to all re-negotiated crewing and terms and conditions, including on new ferries they have ordered from China that are due to arrive in 3–4 years.

Mick Cash said: “Threatening permanent cuts to seafarers jobs, pay and conditions and the maritime supply chain at a time of national crisis sends a message of utter contempt to my members and the country as a whole.

“To use the temporary market conditions created by the Coronavirus to attack our members, the maritime workers this country will always need, is nothing short of contemptuous and the Government need to step in here to provide more guarantees to protect British seafarers’ jobs and apprenticeships for the future.

“Once again it is a company that is planning to pay out huge dividends to its owner, on this occasion £270.12 million to ultimate owners DP World in Dubai. This is almost 10 times the £28.4 million they plan to rob from their workers.”

The previous day Stena Line Ferries announced that about 600 of its 2,000 seafarer, docker and port service workforce will be furloughed and a further 150 redundancies will be sought despite a lack of certainty over seafarer access to the UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Schemes.

Mike Cash warned: “This is another major employer of UK seafarers reacting to flat lining demand by gambling with key workers’ jobs and future at a time of national crisis. Redundancies are a serious development and must not be used to avoid other alternatives that would save jobs.

“Dock and port workers are eligible for state support but we cannot agree to ‘furlough’ for our seafarers when the Government guidance does not give UK seafarers at Stena Line or other major employers clarity on eligibility.

“Stena Line should commit to covering 100 per cent of wages for everyone affected by today’s announcement, as well as reinstating the company sick pay scheme for all employees.