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Compliance with the law is not optional. Even for P&O Ferries

Mass sackings at ro-ro operator last year ago were illegal, even though the company boasted it would do it all again. It has faced no consequences

UK minimum wage will be extended to seafarers, while Labour is committing to a ‘Seafarers’ Charter’. Neither would have happened without the P&O Ferries’ shocking actions

THE media dubbed it “walkout Wednesday” when 700,000 workers across Britain timed industrial action in support of pay claims to coincide with Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s first Budget this week.

With the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting the sharpest fall in living standards since the 1950s over the next two years, expect many more strikes to come between now and the next general election.

Given the denunciations of “mindless militancy” that routinely emanate from certain newspapers and politicians, it’s worth reiterating that British employees enjoy workplace legal protections that are particularly weak by first world standards.

Unfortunately, the shipping industry proves the point. Today marks the anniversary of DP World subsidiary P&O Ferries’ decision simultaneously to sack all of its UK seafarers.

In all, 786 officers and ratings were peremptorily discarded by pre-recorded Zoom message, without any notice period whatsoever. Private security squads boarded the ro-ros and frogmarched loyal and sometimes longstanding crew off the vessels in full view of the media.

These men and women were replaced by seafarers employed by third-party crewing agencies at far lower wage rates. They are working hours longer than seafarer unions Nautilus International and RMT believe to be safe

From a moral point of view, this was simply a shoddy fashion in which to treat human beings. The Archbishop of Canterbury, more properly occupied in conducting the eucharist than shipping industrial relations commentary, came down on the side of the crews.

Even in terms of the minimal safeguards offered by UK employment law, the actions of P&O Ferries were also brazenly illegal. Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite openly admitted as much, adding that he had no compunctions about what it had done, and would happily repeat such conduct if felt necessary.

Some industry representatives notably failed to read the room, discussing the issue on national broadcast media in an inappropriately defensive terms, even where they privately shared the disapprobation.

This was not the best way to respond to immense public indignation and an avalanche of adverse publicity, which were an obvious setback to already uphill efforts to make cadetships seem attractive to the young.

Even then transport secretary Grant Shapps entreated the Insolvency Service to declare Mr Hebblethwaite unfit to be a company director. One year later, Mr Hebblethwaite remains in post, and neither hugely profitable port multinational parent company DP World nor the subsidiary he heads has faced any consequences whatsoever.

Another direct outcome was the introduction of a Seafarers’ Wages Bill, which extends the national minimum wage to seafarers on ships regularly calling in British ports.

It has now passed its third reading in the House of Commons and is currently at the final amendment stage prior to royal assent. Nautilus and RMT are actively seeking the last-ditch inclusion of a cap on the length of time spent at sea.

Not ten years ago, seafarer employer organisations would have fought this measure strongly. In the wake of the P&O Ferries scandal, they seem ready to give the ground.

So long as coverage makes a proper distinction between ferry seafarers and those engaged in deepsea trades, who are covered by an International Labour Organisation pay floor, and in practice a more generous scale agreed with the ITF, such a law now seems proportionate. And even if it was not, it would be politically irresistible.

The UK Major Ports Group has a valid objection to what they regard as the bill’s de facto demand that ports must police the employment practices of ferry operators. Ports have neither the expertise nor resources to oversee enforcement, which is properly the job of government and regulators.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party has used the anniversary of the P&O Ferries dismissals to promise “a strong, legally binding Seafarers’ Charter” that “smashes the business model dependent on the cruel manipulation of vulnerable workers from around the world”.

Proper judgement obviously awaits publication of the details. But while the initial rhetoric is strident, perhaps for union consumption, indications don’t point to anything blindingly radical.

So far anyway, the stated intent is simply to secure agreement between unions, government and employers on minimum protections for pay, roster patterns, crewing levels, pensions, taxation and training.

That is little more than the sort of social partnership model familiar from much of continental Europe. Providing this is achieved by agreement and the terms are not onerous, few will object to the practical application of common decency.

Yet it is now sadly fashionable to hear ministers proclaim readiness to break international law “in a very specific and limited way” over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and admit that new legislation on asylum contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

The drift looks to be towards a situation in which compliance with the law is optional. That would be the wrong direction.

The law is binding on us as individuals, binding on companies as corporate entities, and binding even on governments themselves. It ought to be equally binding on P&O Ferries.

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