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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


Action over P&O

by New Worker correspondent

THIS WEEK’S reports from the front-line of trade union struggles are dominated, but not exclusively so, by fire-and-rehire disputes. The most dramatic of those is the continuing struggle at shipping company P&O, which saw many protests take place up and down the country last weekend.

Following predictably short and fruitless talks last Friday, RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said: “From the outset the full obnoxiousness and hostility of the company towards their staff and the RMT was on display. P&O were not prepared to listen to any scenario or develop any idea that would provide a means to create a solution to the current disastrous situation. The meeting broke up inside 20 minutes as P&O were simply unprepared to change their course from the illegal dismissal of 800 seafarers.”

He also demanded that the Government act on promises by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to secure their reinstatement.

It should be noted that whilst Tory Ministers have verbally denounced fire-and-rehire, nothing has actually been down to outlaw the practice in law despite their promises. The matter went unmentioned in the last Queen’s Speech, despite earlier pledges. Indeed, a Labour MP’s Private Members Bill to outlaw the practice was ‘talked out’ in the House of Commons.

“The people of the UK need to pull P&O to account and make sure that the law in the workplace is upheld, that British workers can have job security and decent pay, and that P&O workers get workplace justice,” Lynch concluded.

On Monday TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady respectfully welcomed suggestions that Shapps was going to introduce legislation to extend the minimum wage to seafarers, saying: “Closing the loophole that lets rogue employers pay less than minimum wage at sea is long overdue. But it is just half a step forward.”

To the delight of RMT, the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) detained two P&O ships, the European Causeway at Larne and the Dover-based Pride of Kent. In both cases the MCA was concerned about the new ill-paid crews being ill-equipped to handle the ships.

After the MCA took over the first ship, Mick Lynch said: “The seizing of the European Causeway by the MCA tonight shows that the gangster capitalist outfit P&O are not fit and proper to run a safe service after the jobs massacre.”

volumes

On the occasion of the second seizure he said: “It’s rare enough for the MCA to impound a ferry but P&O have now had two in a week after the jobs carve up which speaks volumes about the dire state of their operation.

“It’s now high time for these important vessels to be taken over under public control with the sacked crews reinstated as the only way to get these crucial ferry routes back running safely.”

On Tuesday however, RMT demanded that MCA go further than look at the situation on individual ships and should take action against all P&O ships because: “It’s clear P&O are winging it on staff and passenger safety and the solution is a blanket ban on their operations until the sacked staff with the correct safety competencies and experience are reinstated.”

It looks as though they will have a bitter fight on their hands. On Tuesday P&O’s boss said reversing the cuts would lead to the loss of an additional 2,200 jobs and the company’s possible collapse. He claimed more than 500 of the sacked crew had accepted and signed settlement agreements.

This came after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps gave P&O “one final opportunity” to reemploy staff at previous wage rates. P&O have admitted that their actions were illegal, so it should not be difficult to hold them to account if the ministerial will is there.

Unusually for the boss of a major company, Peter Hebblethwaite has been on the receiving end of demands from the Tory Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary that he should resign. These he intends to ignore, perhaps secure in the knowledge that the matter is unlikely to be pressed too hard.

Under questioning at Holyrood, he also claimed the ferries had been regularly losing £100 million per year that been covered by its Dubai-based owners – however they managed to pay a £270 million dividend in 2020.

He also tried to claim that in future ships would have one crew instead of two, which would mean staff would be paid for the actual time they worked plus holidays, instead of being “granted full pay for working 24 weeks a year”. He said nothing about wage rates but claimed savings would come from “the removal of job duplication and the benefits of increased flexibility”.

He openly admitted that: “We assessed all options available to us but we, the board and I, concluded that all routes led to the closure of the business… Because it was so radical it was our conclusion that no union could possibly accept our proposal and that any consultation would therefore have been a sham.”

Even Prospect, a high-caste civil service union which includes surveyors working at the MCA, has joined forces with marine officers and engineers’ union Nautilus International to demand the MCA undertake rigorous inspections before P&O Ferries vessels are permitted to sail.

pressures

Nautilus stressed that at P&O Ferries, in addition to the risks which are present in all shipping operations, there are extra pressures from operating vessels that carry up to 2,000 passengers to tight schedules and rapid turnarounds, in the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Both unions say they have serious doubts as to how a company that has replaced its entire crew – with no handover from experienced maritime professionals – can demonstrate compliance with the safety requirements put in place after the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise disaster.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy demanded that: “MCA surveyors must establish that any new personnel are qualified, familiarised with their duties, and are prepared to act during emergencies. If the agency crew hired by P&O Ferries – from a company set up just a few weeks ago – are not ready to operate the vessels safely, then they must not allow them to operate.”

Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson added that his union was appalled “that the company are planning to implement tours of up to eight weeks in length. This is not a safe working arrangement, and there is a plethora of evidence available which demonstrates the detrimental effect that seafarer fatigue has on safety. P&O Ferries has itself recognised this in the past”.

He also demanded that: “The Flag States of the affected vessels – Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas – should immediately withdraw the vessels’ safe manning documents while they await revised proposals from the company based on their proposed operating patterns.”