Labour has set out a five-point plan intended to prevent a repeat of the P&O Ferries scandal, which saw almost 800 workers made redundant with immediate effect in favour of lower-paid agency staff.
Writing in the Independent today on the one-year anniversary of the incident, Angela Rayner and Louise Haigh unveiled the plan to “end fire and rehire”, which they said will “ensure workers can be safe in the knowledge that their terms and conditions won’t be ripped up before their eyes”.
The deputy Labour leader and Shadow Transport Secretary said: “The anniversary of the P&O scandal may not be one to celebrate but must mark a moment of real change. Never again should any company think that they can treat British workers with such contempt.”
As part of Labour’s new deal for working people, Rayner and Haigh said the party would require employers to “properly” consult and reach agreements with staff about changes to contracts.
They said the party would “boost” protections to prevent employers from being able to dismiss workers if they do not agree to worse terms and conditions and ensure trade unions are able to act to protect terms and conditions when fire and rehire tactics are being used.
Rayner and Haigh announced that Labour would make the seafarers’ welfare charter – launched by the government following the mass sackings – legally binding and mandate an agreement between unions, government and employers on minimum protections for pay, roster patterns, crewing levels, pensions, taxation and training.
They said Labour would also bring forward the Insolvency Service’s investigation into P&O’s conduct “to ensure justice can be served and make sure lessons are learnt so this is never allowed to happen again”.
The mass sackings in March last year provoked anger among politicians and across the labour movement. Haigh described it at the time as a “scandalous action” and a “betrayal of the workers that kept this country stocked throughout the pandemic”.
A spokesperson for P&O claimed that the mass redundancies were necessary to “secure the future viability” of the business. Its parent company DP World subsequently reported record profits of £598m for the first half of last year.
P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite admitted in an appearance before the Commons transport and business committees that the company broke the law by failing to consult unions “in good time” ahead of announcing the sackings.
Addressing the Commons following Hebblethwaite’s evidence session, then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps described the sackings as “shameful”, adding: “No British worker should be treated in this way, devoid of dignity and respect.”
Shapps said the government would bring forward a package of measures that would “force” P&O to “fundamentally rethink its decision” and “send a clear message to the maritime industry that we will not allow this to happen again”.
It was revealed in August last year that the company would not face criminal proceedings over the incident, with the Insolvency Service concluding that there was “no realistic prospect of a conviction”.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said today: “This Conservative government has failed working people and given rogue employers a free pass to act with impunity.
“Despite behaving like corporate gangsters, P&O Ferries has been allowed to get away scot free because of our lax labour laws. Instead of boosting worker protections and closing legal loopholes, ministers sat on their hands and did next to nothing.”
A government spokesman told the Independent: “We reacted swiftly and decisively against P&O Ferries’ appalling treatment of its staff and have made substantial progress on the nine-point plan we set out last year to improve seafarers’ pay and conditions.
“Having brought forward legislation to ensure seafarers are paid at least an equivalent to the UK national minimum wage, and establishing a new statutory code to deter fire and rehire, we are now working with our near European neighbours to further protect their welfare and pay.”
A P&O Ferries spokesperson said: “Significant changes in the last year have saved this business, including the 2,200 jobs we secured in coastal communities across the UK. As a result, we are now serving the needs of our passenger and freight customers much better than ever before.”
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