The P&O Ferries debacle happened because the government values capital over workers

While the company’s actions are shocking – they really aren’t all that surprising

James Moore
Friday 18 March 2022 15:10 GMT
<p>The government is complicit in everything that has occurred</p>

The government is complicit in everything that has occurred

“Totally unacceptable,” said one minister, in response to the news that P&O Ferries abruptly sacked 800 employees with hardly any notice.

No, wait, it’s “completely unacceptable”. That came from the prime minister’s spokesman.  Which of those sounds tougher? I’m not entirely sure.

“Horrendous,” said another minister. There! That’s how you ratchet up the rhetoric. That’s telling ‘em. P&O Ferries’ bosses will be quaking in their boots and waiting for the government’s hammer to fall now. Except...

James Heappey, the armed forces minister who called it “horrendous”, also said: “The reality is that P&O have made a commercial decision.” He went on to say that there’s not much the government can do. Were those crocodile tears?

While the company’s actions are shocking – the TUC and others have raised questions about their legality given the lack of any notice or, allegedly, consultation period – they really aren’t all that surprising.

They are the inevitable result of a conscious decision by government to put the interests of international capital – P&O is owned by the Dubai-based DP World – above those of its own people. So when that capital catches a cold, they are tipped into an icy sea.

The chill extends to consumers as well as workers. Services have been suspended. While we are told that this is temporary, there aren’t any alternatives for them to turn to on some routes. Would this have been possible anywhere else in Europe? You certainly couldn’t imagine it happening in any EU nation.

Boris Johnson’s British exceptionalism appears to have allowed “handcuff-trained” security guards to be called in to turf out any crew members minded to sit tight on their ships. Think about that for a moment. It ought to be only the police who are allowed to use those, and then under proper supervision. I suppose it is possible to question the legality of that move too.

While the devastating blow delivered to them is a decision taken by DP World and P&O Ferries, and the disgraceful way it has been handled is on them, the government is nonetheless complicit in everything that has occurred. It is the inevitable end result of years of government policy.

The Tories have steadily chipped away at workers’ rights, placed ever more draconian restrictions on their unions, sat back and watched the development of rotten labour market practices, sometimes with tacit approval.

Zero-hours contracts? Sure, go right ahead. We’ll say workers like the flexibility even though we know it only benefits the employer in practice.

Fire and re-hire? Not a problem. You may hear a bit of fuss from one or two of our backbenchers if you do it in their constituencies, but everyone soon forgets about it. Now, about that free port you wanted to run.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised an employment bill, said he would protect workers’ rights, said Britain should be the best place in the world to work. Yet despite all this lofty talk, his government has yet to bring anything forward. Unions suspect he doesn’t want to.

Government business managers, meanwhile, ensured that a backbench motion to have fire and rehire outlawed was blocked last year. Ministers have also repeatedly refused to curtail the use of zero-hours contracts.

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The Bank of England recognises the role collective bargaining and unions play in boosting levels of pay – something the government claims that it wants to see – but there is no sign of it affording them proper access to workplaces.

It is disaster capitalism in real time – a working example of “Singapore-on-Thames” that the punk Thatcherites in the Tory party have been yearning for – in which small managerial and asset owning classes live it up at the expense of everyone else.

If this doesn’t serve as a turning point, there will be more of it on the way.

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