After P&O, Labour must give workers the power to rebalance our rigged economy

Mick Lynch
© Ajit Wick/

Today is the anniversary of one of the darkest episodes in the recent history of employment rights in Britain. P&O Ferries, a subsidiary of United Arab Emirates multinational DP World, sacked its entire workforce of UK ratings and officers – 786 people in total – and replaced them with a low-cost workforce recruited mainly from across the world’s low wage economies and employed by a Maltese crewing agency.

P&O Ferries admitted to MPs that they consciously broke the law and that they would do so again, claiming that no trade union could possibly have accepted their proposals. So they just broke the law. Hand-cuff trained staff from private security firm Interforce boarded the ship and marched workers off, with their belongings impounded.

Such was the public outrage at the time that Tory government ministers and MPs queued up to outdo themselves in pearl-clutching. In reality, their response, including the seafarers’ wages bill and the voluntary seafarers charter, has been systematically undermined by the shipping industry to the point that no effective punishment that restores UK seafarer jobs, skills and maritime safety standards is likely to ever result under this government. P&O Ferries, meanwhile, crow that they got away with it and have not repaid the £11m they received in furlough payments during the pandemic, while DP World has declared record profits of £1.5bn and paid out a dividend of more than £3bn in 2022.

This week has also seen more strikes on the rail and tube networks as our members fight the government-mandated cuts to transport. Like P&O Ferries, the rail monopolies who control our passenger services have exploited the disruptions of Covid to try to ram through an agenda of attacking my members’ pay and conditions that they’ve been pursuing since privatisation. We’ve been joined by hundreds of thousands of workers, increasingly from the public sector, fighting against the legacy of years of austerity-justified incomes policies, aimed at driving the value of wages down, bringing in new waves of labour market deregulation.

Workers facing the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s are refusing to go quietly into poverty as the Tories demand. The predictable response from this government of the super rich has been to tighten the legal vice yet further around the right to strike. Under this Tory government, the interests of a handful of big business oligarchs are shielded and privileged, while Britain slides into authoritarian extremism, its treatment of workers at home and those seeking refuge from abroad plumbing new and frightening depths.

We are clear that we will do our part and fight these laws with every tool at our disposal. Labour must do its bit by delivering the new deal for working people, including repealing anti-trade union legislation. Not only would this break the slide into authoritarianism, it would concretely improve working life for our people.

Give us the legal freedom to organise and collectively bargain, and we can rebalance the rigged economy in Britain. Britain may be full of ambition, but too often, companies like P&O Ferries, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead or, for that matter, Royal Mail listen to only one voice: those of the City shareholders who control what they do with their cash. If we have the freedom to organise, negotiate and collectively bargain, we can reach agreements with employers quicker and stop this race to the bottom, raise incomes, stop the profiteering and encourage investment that can raise productivity without simply scrapping jobs.

The new deal can also help us end the scourge of outsourcing. Yet another failed dogma from the 1980s, outsourcing is a stain on our labour market, driving down wages, entrenching inequalities and degrading services, all on the false assumption that some services can be outsourced because they are ‘non-core’. No one said that during the pandemic, when ‘non-core’ workers were expected to carry on going into work while the City took refuge in home offices.

That’s what makes Labour’s new deal pledge to “oversee the biggest wave of insourcing of public services for a generation” so important. But we can’t and won’t wait for the election. We will continue to build the campaigning and industrial pressure for insourcing now, and wherever Labour is in power, it should be doing the same.

Labour’s mayor in London, Sadiq Khan, has a huge opportunity to show what Labour will do in government and deliver on that new deal pledge now. He’s got the power and the opportunity to put an end to a long injustice and insource 2,000 cleaners who work on the London Underground. Currently, they’re outsourced to a US company called ABM, denied sick pay and decent pensions, overworked and understaffed in pursuit of profits. They were called heroes, rightly, during the pandemic. They’re treated like second-class citizens within Transport for London (TfL).

Khan knows that insourcing would be the right thing to do. Recently, he took action to give these cleaners free travel on TfL, removing at a stroke one heinous injustice they have faced. But now he needs to go further and take the bold step. He’s agreed to review the contract again, and now he needs to work with us to bring them in house. That would show Labour is serious about the new deal for working people and mark a break with the economics of the P&O boardroom.

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