Frances O’Grady has warned that another P&O-style scandal is “on the cards” if the government does not act to introduce stronger protections for workers.
The ferry operator made 800 of its staff redundant with immediate effect in March, in a move that provoked anger among politicians and across the labour movement.
Speaking on the six-month anniversary of the incident, the TUC general secretary said: “Everyone deserves respect and dignity at work. But there are too many bad bosses in this country who treat their staff appallingly – and get away with it because of our lax labour laws.
“The P&O scandal showed us cowboy capitalism at its very worst. 800 dedicated seafarers were illegally sacked without notice or consultation – over video call – and replaced with agency workers on less than the minimum wage.
“But despite behaving like corporate gangsters, P&O has been allowed to get away scot-free – and its owner has even registered eye-watering profits on the back of the mass sacking. It’s an insult to working people up and down the country.”
“Now is the time for government action on workers’ rights. Rogue employers need to know they can’t get away with treating staff like disposable labour. Let’s be clear. Without stronger protections for workers, another P&O-style scandal is on the cards.”
A spokesperson for P&O claimed at the time that the redundancies were necessary to “secure the future viability” of the business. Its parent company DP World has since reported record profits of £598m for the first half of the year.
It was revealed in August that P&O would not face criminal proceedings over the mass redundancies. The Insolvency Service concluded that there was “no realistic prospect of a conviction”.
The chief executive of P&O Ferries admitted in March that the company had broken the law by failing to consult unions “in good time” ahead of the announcement.
Appearing in front of the House of Commons transport and business committees, Peter Hebblethwaite said: “There is absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.”
Defending the decision, Hebblethwaite said the company chose not to consult unions “because we chose not to consult and… we are [compensating] and will compensate everyone in full for that”.
Business committee member Andy McDonald responded: “You haven’t escaped the law of this country. You’ve still got to do it within the legal framework. You can’t just decide that you’re gonna absent yourself from the legal system.”
Polling published by the TUC last week revealed strong support among voters of all parties for boosting workers’ rights. The polling – conducted by GQR – found that 74% of respondents were in favour of ending ‘fire and rehire’, rising to 77% among Conservative voters.
68% of those surveyed supported a ban on zero-hours contracts – including 66% of Tory voters – while 77% were in favour of the introduction of ‘fair pay agreements’ across whole sectors, rising to 78% among Conservatives.
Commenting on the findings in an interview with LabourList, O’Grady said: “We’re sending a big message to Liz Truss, which is: ‘Don’t be the Prime Minister for P&O.’ Slashing workers’ rights is not going to deliver growth. On the contrary, it will hurt the country and hurt working people.”
The TUC’s polling of 3,040 voters was conducted between July 29th and August 11th. 76% of respondents reported that they were in favour of boosting workers’ rights in the gig economy, rising to 78% of Conservative voters
Almost 80% of those surveyed said they supported protecting and enhancing workers’ rights that have been retained since the UK left the EU, including paid holiday, rest breaks and safe limits on working time.
Prime Minister Liz Truss is reportedly planning to review existing EU worker protections, such as the 48-hour working week, in an attempt to “improve the competitiveness of the UK economy”.
O’Grady told LabourList: “We know that parts of the Conservative Party have long had precious rights, like limits on unsafe working hours, in their sights. They want to attack them, they want to attack the 48-hour a week maximum.
“They want to attack paid holidays and rights to rest breaks. And we’re saying hands off, because you’ll pay a heavy political price for making working lives worse.”