Labour motion demanding action against P&O passes as Tories abstain

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MPs have passed a Labour motion calling on the government to take action against P&O Ferries’ parent company and demanding the reinstatement of 800 workers who were sacked last week – but only because Tories abstained.

Addressing the House of Commons during the debate, Labour’s Louise Haigh described the mass sacking by P&O as “nothing short of a betrayal of the workers who protected this country’s supply chain during the pandemic”.

P&O, owned by DP World, informed staff in a Zoom call on Thursday that they were being made redundant with immediate effect. A spokesperson for the ferry operator said the decision was necessary to “secure the future viability” of the business.

Haigh called on ministers to start criminal action against P&O Ferries for its “flagrant breach of employment law” and impose “unlimited fines not only for the company but for the directors and managers of any of those who were complicit”.

Opposition day debates allow opposition parties to set the agenda, but motions passed are not binding. Labour’s P&O motion called on ministers to suspend the contracts and licences of DP World and for its removal from the government’s transport advisory group.

The motion also called for legislation outlawing fire and rehire, a tactic only allowing workers to keep their jobs by accepting worse terms and conditions, and to “strengthen workers’ rights”. 211 MPs voted in favour, and none voted against.

“The truth is, P&O Ferries and DP World did this precisely because they thought they could get away with it. They knew they could exploit the UK’s shamefully weak employment law,” the Shadow Transport Secretary said today.

“They knew the investments the government have with them would be prized more highly than the livelihoods of 800 people, and they knew that when they did what they did, the government would not stand in their way. The impotent response so far from ministers, shows that they were right to think that.”

Ministers reportedly knew about the planned redundancies before staff were informed. The Sunday Times revealed that officials argued in a memo to ministers that the move would enable P&O to “remain a key player in the UK market”.

The leaked document is thought to have been shared across government, including with the Prime Minister’s private office and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. Haigh argued last week that the memo proved ministers were “complicit” in the move.

Haigh highlighted reports today from trade unions that crews working on the ferries at Dover have been replaced by seafarers being paid £1.80 per hour, likening the actions of the operator to a “grim Dickensian depiction”.

“For far too long ministers have sat on their hands and chosen to side with bad bosses by failing to strengthen workers’ rights. It must be a line in the sand,” Haigh told parliament this afternoon.

“If ministers mean what they say, they will bring forward an emergency employment bill tomorrow. They would outlaw fire and rehire without delay and strengthen employment rights and they would demand these loyal P&O workers are reinstated.”

Grant Shapps told MPs that he had been notified of the company’s plan at 8pm the day before the redundancies were handed down to staff. Companies ordinarily have a duty to inform the government of mass redundancies.

The Transport Secretary said the company could face criminal sanctions including unlimited fines, but added that it is “not too late” for discussion with the ferry operator to “salvage the situation”. He also said P&O will be asked to rename their ships if they hire non-British employees.

Defending its decision to replace 800 of its staff with agency workers last week, P&O Ferries argued that “the business wouldn’t survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements, which in turn would inevitably result in redundancies”.

Ministers have given the company a deadline of 5pm on Tuesday to justify sacking its workers without consulting trade unions. Footage emerged shortly after the sacking of workers being marched off ships by balaclava-clad security staff.

Tory MP Natalie Elphicke described the redundancies as “shameful corporate behaviour” but described people demonstrating against the move as “hard-left militants”, claiming they were “bully boys seeking to drown out the voice of democratically elected representatives, me as the MP for Dover”.

Labour’s Ian Lavery warned that she “shouldn’t really get mixed up with people who are really angry at losing their jobs and she shouldn’t basically suggest that somebody who has lost their job is a hard-left militant”, adding: “If I lost my job in the way and the fashion that these individuals did, I would be more than angry.”

Parent company DP World paid shareholders a £240m dividend at the end of 2020, and P&O reported an 11% increase in revenue last year. The company received taxpayer funds of around £10m during the pandemic to furlough 1,100 workers.

Below is the text of Labour’s opposition day debate motion on P&O Ferries.

Keir Starmer
Angela Rayner
Louise Haigh
Justin Madders
Thangam Debbonaire
Sir Alan Campbell

That this House condemns the decision of P&O Ferries to fire 800 staff without notice and demands their immediate reinstatement; notes that DP World, the owner of P&O Ferries, received millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money during the coronavirus pandemic; calls on the government to suspend the contracts and licences of DP World and remove them from the government’s transport advisory group; and further calls on the government to bring forward a bill urgently to outlaw fire and rehire and strengthen workers’ rights.

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