The day that P&O sacked all its staff: view from a worker in Dover

When capital makes decisions about its profit margins, it is real people whose lives are destroyed.

Why is it always workers who have to pay the price for the failure of the capitalist system to provide meaningful work for all?

David Kerr is a Workers Party of Britain activist in Dover.


Thursday 17 March seemed a normal day for Phil and Adrian as they met outside the Maison Dieu in Dover. The building was originally erected by Hubert de Burgh in 1203 as a hospital for those making the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and had just gone through a major refurbishment.

Both Phil and Adrian had worked for P&O for many years, Phil as a chef and Adrian as a deck hand. They had a quick chat about last night’s football and headed towards the market square to meet up with the rest of the gang.

As they walked down through the town, they noticed more boarded-up shops. Many major stores had departed the town in recent months and years – including Marks and Spencer, Peacocks, Burtons, MacDonald’s and Barclays bank – to be replaced by charity shops and plywood windows.

As they approached the market square, they wondered what the place would look like when it stopped being a building site. Millions of pounds spent for what? They were hoping it would do more for the town than the disastrous cycle lane had done. Probably not. Both district and county councils had a rich history of ignoring local people and wasting public money.

Outside what had once been a Lloyds bank and is now an estate agent, they met the rest of the group. Mark and Elaine were a married couple who had both worked for the company for some years. They were excited about their upcoming appointment with an estate agent – the dream of buying their own home after many years of saving looked like it might finally be realised. Living with Elaine’s parents was fine, but they were more than ready to take five-year-old Jake to a home of their own up the Vale.

Also joining them was young Hendry, better known as H. H had only been with the company a few months, and had a lot to learn. The rest of the gang would randomly fire him questions about ship drills and emergency procedures. “What’s the signal for a general emergency, H?” asked Phil “Seven short and one long blast of the ship’s whistle or through the tannoy, followed by an announcement.” “Well done, mate. Remember: run and jump.”

H was always terrified of drills, especially Port State Control inspections, and was grateful for the help of his more experienced crew members. There was so much to learn about safety on board, including: the quickest way to your muster station, how to use all the equipment, and how to get passengers down the chutes to safety should the worst ever happen.

As they walked through the tunnel under the A20 and onto the harbour, they noticed the difference. This area was run by Dover Harbour Board and so much money had been spent on its regeneration. Unfortunately, not all had gone as planned. Millions had been spent on the new marina, but this still had no boats berthed in it.

The planners had, unfortunately, found out too late that when the wind was of a certain strength, and from a certain direction, any moored boats would be smashed to bits. Any local seaman could have told them this, but they didn’t ask. They never did.

As the group walked along the promenade, they noticed a large queue of freight. “Bloody Brexit,” said Phil. “Nothing to do with Brexit,” stated Adrian.

The fact is that we’ve always had queues on a busy day like this, and they got worse after P&O cut their fleet from six vessels to four. At one time, they operated eleven vessels: eight on the Dover to Calais route, and three on the freight service from Dover to Zeebrugge.

Dover harbour is very prone to wind, and the port will close to shipping if the wind rises above 50 knots in a certain direction. It’s not because the vessels can’t handle it, but because of the ferries coming in through the eastern arm. Inbound from France, they have to navigate around a sand bar, which then brings them in at an angle. To avoid the dangers of a collision with the eastern arm wall, they close the port.

Other exacerbating factors for the queues at Dover port are problems with the Eurotunnel and industrial action.

When the queues get really bad, two systems are put in place. First of all, Dover Tap is implemented. This involves holding freight in lane one of the A20 outside Dover by Aycliff. This gives control for loading and keeps the town traffic flowing. When this is not enough, Operation Stack in implemented, which involves holding freight on the M20 between Ashford and Maidstone, using lane one for Eurotunnel traffic and lane three for port traffic.

As the group approached the entrance to the port they were joined by the remainder of their crew, along with some crew from rival company DFDS. There was an exchange of friendly banter as they all knew each other: some were related but worked for different companies.

Dover has had a sea crossing since Roman times, and a proud seafaring tradition has been carried on for centuries in the town. There have been good times and bad. Everyone remembers the seamen’s strike of 1988-89 when 2,220 seaman went on strike over changes to working practises. This ended with P&O sacking all the strikers – an injustice that to this day has not been resolved.

Never to be forgotten is the disaster of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987. On that tragic day, 193 souls, including several crew members, lost their lives when the boat sank after departing Zeebrugge.

As the group boarded the vessel, an air of concern was felt around the ship. They were told that all sailings today were cancelled as an important announcement was to be made.

The rest is history. The fight for jobs, and justice, has begun.