P&O sackings: Don’t make workers pay for the capitalist crisis

The ferry company’s callous treatment of its employees reminds us yet again that the logic of the capitalist system is impervious to the needs of human beings.

Proletarian writers

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Laws are only as good as their enforcement, and enforcement reflects the balance of class forces. It could not be plainer that employers in Britain today know that there is virtually no enforcement of employment law – as was made brutally clear by P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite when he admitted to Parliament’s transport select committee that his company knew it was breaking the law when it sacked 800 staff without warning, but decided to go ahead anyway. This is the logic when profit is king.

Proletarian writers

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The sacking of 800 seafarers by ferry company P&O marks a new low in industrial relations in Britain, shamelessly revealing the complete contempt capitalism has for those whom it holds in its thrall as wage slaves.

Canny workers will learn from this bitter experience to discern the essential barbarism of all capitalism, which cares nothing for its workers and everything for its profits.

There was no prior warning of the redundancies at P&O and no union negotiation, just a five-minute video laying down this fait accompli and the forcible expulsion of workers from the ships. The security guards hired to expel the workers from their place of work were warned: “You will need your Interforce uniform including cuffs and utility belt. You will not need body armour for this task.”

And whilst the expulsions were in progress, scab labour from outside agencies was bussed in, ready to take over the posts vacated. Recruitment adverts aimed squarely at the east European labour market appeared. Agency staff, used cynically to divide workers and feed the fires of xenophobia, were themselves superexploited, earning as little as £1.82 an hour and living in substandard multiple occupancy accommodation – or even freezing in tents.

Fierce competition between rival ferry companies, intensified during the pandemic, drove a race to the bottom in pay, conditions and job security. Already back in 2005, Irish Ferries had led the cost-cutting pack, overcoming resistance from the workforce to achieve a much cheaper wage bill than other ferry companies, including Stena and P&O.

Last summer, Irish Ferries used this tactical advantage to muscle in on the money-spinning Dover/Calais route, whilst P&O went on to notch up some £100m of losses during the pandemic, even though the company took full advantage of government Covid assistance in 2020, pocketing £10m of furlough cash.

Curiously, whilst P&O’s balance sheet records losses, parent company DPWorld appears to be flush with cash, allowing it to pay a £270m dividend to its investors back home in Dubai – just one month before its needy offspring took the government hand-out. Speculation is rife that the decision to go ahead with the mass sackings was really DPWorld’s, driven by the need of this monopoly capitalist outfit to make the maximum profit – to be paid for by throwing 800 souls under the bus.

Despite the public outrage sparked by P&O’s actions, prompting much talk about possible legal redress for the wronged workforce, any attempt to hold P&O to account for its actions is made more difficult because of P&O’s practice of sailing all its ferries under foreign flags, leading them to argue that they are therefore not bound by British jurisdiction.

We denounce this callous treatment of its workers by P&O, which confronts the working class afresh with the need to make the historic choice: socialism or barbarism.