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P&O Ferries, Consulting Workers & the Right to Strike – Adrian Weir


“We need not just a right to strike in the direct employment relationship but additionally a right to take sympathetic strike action in support of workers that may have little or no connection with the first group proposing to take action.”

By Adrian Weir

Someone in my social media feed recently posted that the P&O Ferries scandal showed how vital it was that workers were in a union. That of course is true in any working environment but what P&O Ferries has shown us is that not only do workers need unions, at the same time workers’ unions need power.

Power may come from a number of sources, including the mobilisation of members. Power also derives from strong rights at work not only for individuals but critically for unions. The P&O Ferries case has so graphically shown that unions in Britain do not have the legal right to immediately defend their members. Nor do they have the right to take action to support workers who may not be their members involved in a dispute with an employer with which the union has no relationship.

It has long been recognised that although Britain was a founding signatory of the UN’s International Labour Organisation Conventions 87 and 98 on the right to organise, to bargain and arguably to strike the problem, and it is a big one, is  that, as the TUC has found on numerous trips to Geneva to plead the case against the UK Government for Convention breaches since 1980, there is no effective enforcement mechanism against governments that create a legal framework that allows for example, P&O Ferries, to act as it chooses.

Prof Keith Ewing has elsewhere set out many other international legal instruments that the Government or P&O Ferries may be in breach of not least the obligation on a government to ensure that its civil service protects the human rights of workers.

On 22 November last year Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps MP in Dubai met Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, CEO of P&O Ferries’ parent company DP World. At the meeting Sulayem said: “In respect of our ferry business, there’s a new low-cost competitor from Irish Ferries. This poses challenges in respect of P&O’s operations. We kept ferries operating during the height of the pandemic to support movement of people and goods.”

The official minute does suggest that P&O Ferries owners did advise the Government in advance of the 800 sackings but as the Department of Transport appears to have done nothing it would seem that the UK Government is in another breach but with no remedy for those dismissed.

More concretely, although protected in the international instruments and in UK labour law it is the failure to inform and consult with the recognised unions, RMT and Nautilus, over the proposed redundancies that has caused such a backlash for P&O Ferries.

The failure of UK law to protect workers was explicitly spelt out by P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite when he appeared before the joint meeting of the Business, Energy, Innovation & Skills and Transport Select Committees in Parliament.

When pressed by Andy McDonald MP Hebblethwaite said: “There is absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.” He went on: “It was our assessment that the change was of such magnitude that no union could possibly accept our proposal.” How right he was.

Hebblethwaite went on to say: “because we chose not to consult … we are [compensating] and will compensate everyone in full for that.” It is reported that each of the 800 may be in line for an average of £15,000 compensation (presumably after signing a settlement agreement). So there we have it, a major company wanting to change its business model can just factor in these costs, pay them, in this case apparently £12 million, and essentially get away with it.

Hebblethwaite subsequently appeared before a similar committee at the Scottish Parliament where his grip on reality seemed to be slipping away. After admitting breaking the law over failure to consult RMT and Nautilus he said: “we are very clear that we have not done anything illegal” and commenting on what he hopes will be the future with crews supplied by agencies and no collective agreement he said “I absolutely respect unions and we will continue to work with the unions we have representing our workers.”

The initial sackings and Hebblethwaite’s appearances before parliamentary committees has provoked even the UK Government into doing more than handwringing. On 29 March it announced a new statutory code “to prevent unscrupulous employers using fire and rehire tactics.” Let it not be forgotten that last Autumn this is the Government that talked out Barry Gardiner MP’s private members’ Bill that attempted to do just that.

This initiative must clearly rank as a major damp squib even for a Government that has damp squibs as its stock in trade. Cutting through the Minister’s bluster in the BEIS press release we find out that among a number of limited measures what’s promised is that a court or Employment Tribunal may award, if it believes that the new code has not been followed, a 25% increase in the compensation payable to workers.

As deadline day for signing up to the company’s offer has passed and with the overwhelming majority of those dismissed understandably accepting, Nautilus has correctly observed that P&O Ferries “has got away with it.”

It could be assumed that in the P&O Ferries case the new Code would mean all the employer would have to factor in as transitional costs in the move to the new business model would be £16 million instead of £12 million today. As John Hendy QC remarked on Twitter: “This won’t do.”

What would do however, is a major reform of labour law that would reinstate a right to strike in Britain. We need not just a right to strike in the direct employment relationship but additionally a right to take sympathetic strike action in support of workers that may have little or no connection with the first group proposing to take action.

With ro-ro ferries there clearly is not a need for a large number of dockers to handle these vessels and their cargo but there will be mooring gangs who secure the ships as they come alongside – it would seem that these workers are critical and if called on to strike in support of dismissed crews would have great impact in limiting the operation of services.

Other maritime workers essential for the operation of the ferries are shore based workers in the ports – staff who check in cars and commercial vehicles as they arrive at the port; others who marshal cars and lorries on the quayside prior to embarkation; and, those who drive the tractor units towing lorry trailers on and off the ferry. Again these workers seem critical and if mobilised to strike would bring ferries to a standstill.

We have the bizarre situation where dock workers in Rotterdam have taken strike action to support the 800, action that in the UK would be unlawful. It was not balloted, no notice given to the employer, not connected with their own employer, concerned with matters overseas – if in the UK the grounds for an employers’ injunction in the British courts are endless.

Such a necessary reform would, as John Hendy has argued, guarantee “the legal space, protected from injunctions and damages claims, in which to organise industrial action.”

Adrian Weir is Asst Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

  • Adrian Weir is standing for re-election as a London Representative on Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF)
  • CLPs have until 17th June to nominate NPF candidates – to do this you will need their membership number. Adrian Weir’s membership number is A175718
  • Please show your support for his campaign by following his twitter @AMJWeir

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