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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

All at sea

by New Worker correspondent

The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose off the common But leaves the greater villain loose Who steals the common from the goose.

THAT 17th century English poem about the enclosure movement still has relevance for the 21st century, particularly in the case of the sacking of nearly 800 workers by P&O Ferries in March so that they could be replaced with foreign agency workers who are paid well below the UK minimum wage.

Soon after protests became widespread Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng instructed the Insolvency Service (IS) to investigate the case. That has now been concluded, with the IS claiming that: “After a full and robust criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the employees who were made redundant by P&O Ferries, we have concluded that we will not commence criminal proceedings” because there was “no realistic prospect of a conviction.”

Even a Government spokesperson deplored this, saying of P&O Ferries: “Given their appalling behaviour, it’s very disappointing that the company will not face criminal proceedings.”

Labour’s Shadow Employment Rights minister Justin Madders said: “For all the handwringing of Tory ministers, they’ve broken the promises they made after P&O’s outrageous behaviour and instead changed the law to open the door for others to follow in their wake elsewhere.” In the true tradition of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, he did not specify what the cure was.

But the Tory Chair of the Commons’ Transport Select Committee was more slightly more specific, saying: “The law isn’t strong enough and as MPs we need to legislate to make sure that it is. I still maintain their (P&O Ferries) actions are a disgrace – but the disgrace will be on Parliament if we don’t fix it and stop it from happening again.”

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus international, the union which represents officers and engineers, fumed: “This is a deeply disappointing decision and will be met with frustration and anger by the 786 seafarers and their families who were so cruelly discarded by P&O Ferries. Only one day after P&O Ferries parent company announced record profits, making the company’s claims on operational sustainability questionable, we are further let down by a system that fails to punish apparent criminal corporatism.

“The message is clear, P&O Ferries must be held properly accountable for their disgraceful actions and we will continue the campaign to ensure that the CEO and his fellow Directors are held to account and to make certain this can never happen again.” Readers had better not hold their breath.

The RMT transport union, which represents the ratings, also deplored the decision, and warned of the wider implications. General secretary Mick Lynch said: “Now the company has been allowed to get off the hook legally despite claims by the government it would take action. Not only has this government stood by while DP World sacked workers and replaced them with low paid agency workers, It is now planning to do the same on the railways to replace striking workers fighting for their rights.”


At a parliamentary committee, P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite openly admitted that the sackings, which in some cases were announced in a pre-recorded video message, were illegal. He claimed the sackings were essential how­ever, to keep the company solvent. An announcement has now been made, just before the news of inaction by IS, by P&O’s parent company reporting a profit of £736 million for the half year that includes the period of the sackings, an increase of 51 per cent on the 2021 figure. This was said to be due to focussing on cargo rather than ferries.

For the TUC, retiring gen­eral secretary Francis O’Grady said P&O’s parent company should lose all Government contracts. It is in the running for contracts at the new Freeports.


Nautilus also complains that the maritime inspectorate has found a record number of deficiencies on P&O’s two main ferries and on all routes, which have resulted in ships being detained.

Also on the high seas, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) recently issued a press release boasting that last year its 215 inspectors had carried out 7,265 inspections on ships across the world and secured no less than 37,591,331 dollars in unpaid wages and entitlements for seafarers from ship-owners such as P&O.

That is well and good – but it is clear that remedying such abuses is a ‘whack-a-mole’ operation with two new cases emerging for every one solved, at least until the inspector’s back is turned.

Steve Trowsdale, the fed­eration’s Inspectorate Co-ordinator, noted that: “Concerningly, we’re seeing a rise in the number of seafarers reporting non-payment of wages for periods of two months or longer, which actually meets the ILO’s definition of abandonment.”

He added: “Seafarers might think it’s normal to go unpaid for a couple of months, waiting for a ship-owner to sort out financing, but they need to be aware that non-payment can also be a sign that a ship-owner is about to cut them loose and leave them abandoned.”

There was also a record high number of 85 cases of abandonment reported to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last year.

One of these was cases was that of an eight-week struggle to secure the wages for a storm-battered ship that was nearly wrecked. Eight Burmese seamen eventually received eight weeks wages of $30,000 between them and flights home. This is the norm, not the exception, but the Covid crisis was an excuse for ship-owners to keep workers tied to their contracts long after they had expired due to the difficulties of getting home. This would save ship owners a few homeward flights.

Some modest piece of positive news for seafarers comes from the stormy waters of the Southampton to Cowes route on the Isle of Wight. Here strike action scheduled to begin on Tuesday, on the Red Funnel line, was called off at the last minute due to an improved offer being belatedly made.

The local {Isle of Wight County Press} said around 120 people, who work as customer service staff, shunters and ratings, would return to work as normal during the ballot. Unite’s regional officer Ian Woodland warned however, that if the deal is rejected then further strike action will be scheduled.

Red Funnel workers are paid less (and only for hours actually worked) than on a rival route, and there are no overnight subsidies for food or other expenses when they are unable to get home.