England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Lessons of the P&O dispute

Photo credit: Paul McGowan

In March, 800 British crew members of P&O Ferries were told by video message that P&O ships would mainly be crewed ‘by a third-party crew provider’. Their jobs were being replaced by lower-paid agency workers, many of whom would be paid less than the minimum wage. Chaos has since ensued. ‘Handcuff trained’ guards were deployed to remove crew from ships. Ferries have remained in dock due to safety concerns, with one ship being detained in Larne, Northern Ireland, because the agency crew were unfamiliar with the vessel, ship documentation and staff training. 

Unions have called on the government to halt this ‘scandalous betrayal’. ‘. Rail Maritime and Transport Union General Secretary Mick Lynch ‘ described it as ‘one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations.’ Crew initially remained on board the ships – despite the threats – and dockside protests continue. 

RMT and Nautilus International unions have called for action across the ports of Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne. Workers who have worked for P&O ferries for many years have been left feeling ‘utter dismay’, with one worker stating: ‘It’s our lives, it’s how families have grown up, knowing that this is what we do, and it’s just been turned on its head within a matter of hours.’

The RMT called for economic sanctions against P&O for the cost of their destructive actions and called for a ‘Fair Ferries’ agreement (to establish trade union pay rates and terms and conditions as a minimum standard on international ferry routes from UK ports). And they can afford it: the CEO of the parent company of P&O Ferries, DP World, is a millionaire with links to the Dubai Royal Family.

Capitalist legal system no friend of workers

In employment law, P&O Ferries’ actions are almost certainly illegal. In reality, however, the legal system is not there to serve the interests of working-class people. Shipping companies routinely exploit loopholes in the law, such as ‘flags of convenience’, to register ships in countries with lower terms and conditions and safety standards, in order to maximise profits. The CEO of P&O Ferries, Peter Hebblethwaite, even admitted to The House of Commons that the firm broke the law by sacking workers without consultation. Companies are using the Covid pandemic as an excuse to ‘fire and rehire’. Illegal or not, we need fighting trade unions to protect jobs, as neither Starmer’s Labour, the Tories, or the capitalist legal system offer us protection.

Socialist Alternative stands with workers as they picket and protest at the ports of Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne. Under a capitalist system companies put profits before all other concerns. That’s why we call for workers to have control over decision-making, and a guarantee of decent terms and conditions. Transportation must be publicly owned and run democratically by workers who will look out for colleagues and service users, not shareholders. If protests alone are unsuccessful in getting the seafarers’ jobs back, the labour movement must respond by spreading the action to other workplaces, even if this means defying anti-trade union laws. If P&O are allowed to get away with this, there is a danger that it could embolden other employers to do the same. 


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