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After P&O the government needs to do more for seafarers

To close employment law loopholes and build a fairer ferries industry, we need new legislation that ups the legal penalties to ensure no company can buy its way out of consultation with the unions again, writes MARK DICKINSON

MARCH 17 2022 is a day that will live in infamy in the history of the British maritime industry.

This is the date on which 800 loyal and dedicated British seafarers were discarded by P&O Ferries without any regard for them, their families and their communities.

A once renowned company saw its reputation shattered in the space of a three-minute Zoom call.

This was bad, but worse was yet to come. At an appearance before the joint transport and business select committee P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite brazenly admitted that he had broken the law and he would “make this decision again” because he knew no union could ever accept what his company was proposing. That’s one thing he did get right.

It cannot be understated how shocking this statement was. P&O Ferries didn’t just hold its entire British seafaring workforce in contempt, but the rule of law of this country. This strikes at the heart of the issue.

P&O Ferries broke the law by not consulting with Nautilus International and the RMT, but the sanctions appear to be limited — sufficiently weak that P&O Ferries simply calculated the cost it would have to pay for refusing to consult and for unfair dismissal cases and factored that into redundancy offers.

Thus a very dangerous precedent has been set: if you are big enough, with deep enough pockets, you can pay your way out of complying with the law.

This needs to change. The government needs to urgently look at providing a statutory right to an injunction to compel consultation and lifting the cap on protective awards and ensure no company can buy its way out of consultation with unions — otherwise the law isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Hebblethwaite, by his own admission, broke the law, but there was no immediate legal mechanism that we could have reasonably used to have stopped him.

If my union, even potentially, broke the terms of the Trade Union Labour Relations and Consolidation Act 1992 in arranging industrial action, I am pretty confident an injunction would be swiftly granted and damages and compensation for any losses awarded.

This begs the question: why are trade unions held to a higher standard than corporations?

It is clear from the P&O Ferries example that there needs to be a provision that allows for trade unions to apply for immediate injunctive relief to reverse the actions of an employer if they have failed to consult.

Lifting caps on protective awards and providing for unlimited fines for companies and their directors would also help to ensure that those minded to try and buy their way out of a tribunal case would think twice before doing so.

There are glaring gaps in British employment law, including the practice of fire and rehire. Some have suggested that fire and rehire isn’t relevant in the P&O Ferries situation — this is wrong.

Professor Alan Bogg, labour law expert at University of Bristol, described it as “fire and rehire on steroids.”

Over 90 maritime professionals who were dismissed were offered re-employment with P&O Ferries through a foreign crewing agency.

They were offered employment with the Malta-based incoming crewing agency, International Ferry Management (IFM) and that should have been on the basis of the Tupe regulations.

The government has stated its intention to introduce a statutory code of practice which must be followed in carrying out dismissals, with a 25 per cent uplift in compensation for failure to do so, but this makes little difference when, as mentioned, companies can simply buy their way out of a tribunal process. Fire and rehire must be outlawed, no dilutions or equivocations.

The Insolvency Service has announced it will pursue both criminal and civil investigations into P&O Ferries.

This is a move we urged the Secretary of State to take in the letter we wrote to him in the immediate aftermath of P&O Ferries’ decision.

Those responsible must be held to account. However, this cannot be the sum total of government action.

Substantive action must be taken to close the major gaps in employment law that the company’s actions exposed.

Soon after dismissing the 800 seafarers, P&O Ferries announced its intention to replace the crew with seafarers from abroad, employed through IFM that was established in February 2022.

These new crews would not only be paid less than the British national minimum wage, they will smash the established rates for our members and those of the RMT.

This narrow issue has been the main focus of government action and is included in the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’s nine-point plan to “protect our seafarers.”

This plan centred on extending the national minimum wage to cover seafarers and creating minimum-wage corridors between British and international partners.

This is a welcome move, Nautilus has long called for such measures to underpin and support the employment of British seafarers as part of our Build Back Fairer manifesto.

However, this outrageous action by P&O Ferries goes much further than just minimum wage coverage.

Nautilus International, working with the RMT and industry partners, has developed our Fair Ferries Strategy.

The central aim of this strategy is to introduce an industry-wide Fair Ferries Framework Agreement that would require collective bargaining agreements to be concluded with ferry operators on domestic and international routes to and from the British ports.

These agreements would not represent the minimum wages or conditions but reflect British norms and be at levels which would encourage the employment of local seafarers.

To enforce this agreement we have urged the government to ensure that Maritime & Coastguard Agency has the powers to ensure ferry operators comply with the agreement.

We believe this balanced but ambitious strategy, if implemented, would create a fair and sustainable future for the ferry industry in Britain — effectively stopping operators, like P&O Ferries, from treating British seafarers as expendable while ensuring a competitive environment for businesses to flourish. A common and decent baseline for ferry operators.

This would create a true level playing field that encouraged a race to the top rather than a continuation of this destructive competition that drives a race to the bottom in employment and safety standards.

Given the strategic importance of our ferry services to an island nation that I believe is a goal worth fighting for.

The outpouring of public support for the 800 sacked seafarers has been enormous, with demonstrations taking place across the nation.

It is clear this issue has united the country. I am rarely left speechless, but I found myself lost for words as I watched the fans of my football club, Liverpool FC, raise a banner in the historic Kop that declared “Seafarers are not a bank balance: United we stand” — a hugely symbolic act of solidarity from a city imbued with the struggle for workers’ rights.

If the government is listening, it will hear the indignation across the country with a unified call for action.

P&O Ferries must be held accountable for its actions on that fateful St Patrick’s Day and this can never be allowed to happen again.

This can only happen if government close the loopholes in employment law and work with us and industry to create a fair and sustainable ferry industry fit for the future.

Mark Dickinson is general secretary of Nautilus International, the union for Merchant Navy officers and professionals.

This article first appeared at www.tradeunionfreedom.co.uk.

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