The government has backtracked on legal action against P&O Ferries over its surprise sacking of 800 crew members three weeks ago.
In parliament on 30 March transport secretary Grant Shapps told MPs, “the government is not in a position to take court action.” This was despite Boris Johnson telling parliament the previous week, “we will take them to court, we will defend the rights of British workers … P&O plainly aren’t going to get away with this.”
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng had also warned P&O it was facing unlimited fines after instructing the Insolvency Service to investigate the mass redundancy.
Shapps also sent a letter to P&O Ferries on 29 March telling the firm thatit would likely have to reinstate its British workforce under his new proposals.
Lack of any prior consultation with the workers and their union representatives and failure to pay minimum wage to new replacement crews were together seen as the basis for legal action. But news emerged last week that the UK had amended seafarers’ regulations in 2018 so that the government no longer needed to be informed of impending mass redundancies.
A spokesperson for the Nautilus union, which represented around a third of the sacked crew, said on 31 March: “P&O has gotten away with it. There’s no fine, there’s no legal action, there’s only words and hot air.”
They added: “What we’re really after now is systemic change so this can never happen again.”
P&O Ferries redundancies
It is thought that every former employee has now accepted P&O Ferries’ pay off by the 5pm deadline on 31 March. This pay off was compensation for the breach of their employment rights and ranged from £15,000 to more than £100,000 in a few cases – a level calculated by the company to be at least equivalent to what employees could gain from successful employment tribunal cases.
The offer included a gagging clause prohibiting sacked crew from discussing P&O or taking further legal action.
Ministers have promised to amend seafarers’ regulations and maritime laws to try to ensure all crews operating from UK ports are paid the minimum wage, but its initial proposals were described as unworkable by port authority bodies.
The RMT and Nautilus unions have called for sanctions on DP World, the holding company based in Dubai that owns P&O Ferries, but the government has so far remained silent. DP World has been in receipt of £50m in tax breaks from the UK in return for the establishment of freeports at London Gateway and Southampton docks.
‘Green light for bad bosses’
Labour, which described the government’s sudden change in tack on the sackings as “bewildering” has also asked foreign secretary Liz Truss about the UK’s £548m investment in DP World ports in Africa, using development aid money. Shadow minister Preet Kaur Gill wrote to Truss over the use of “taxpayers’ money to subsidise the business of a company that has treated British workers with such contempt”.
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said P&O escaping without consequences would “give the green light to bad bosses across the country”.
As for the government’s proposal to ask port authorities to ban ships with below-minimum-wage crews, chief executive of Major Ports Group, Tim Morris, told the BBC on 31 March: “What’s being proposed here is quite different from normal good practice … a specific legal duty, a liability, to ensure that another business is complying with employment law. We are not police, we are not enforcement agencies of the law.”
‘The fight goes on’
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, announcing a protest march in Portsmouth to be held today (1 April), stated: “We have made it clear to P&O and DP World that the campaign against their brutal treatment of RMT members continues and tomorrow we take that message to Portsmouth.
“This fight goes on and we want serious and decisive action to right the wrong at P&O and get our members back to work running safe UK ferry services.”
One employment lawyer questioned how it was the crucial change in the seafarers’ regulations in 2018 under then transport secretary Chris Grayling had been missed by ministers. Simon McMenemy, managing partner at Ogletree Deakins International LLP, asked: “Why do they not know what laws they have passed in the last few years to allow P&O to do what it has done? Does Chris Grayling have no comment on regulations he signed allowing P&O to do what they have done?”
To many law specialists it was clear from the evidence heard at the joint Transport Committee/BEIS committee parliamentary session on the redundancies last week that any legal challenge against P&O Ferries would be on shaky grounds. “And now Grant Shapps is scrabbling around trying to close the stable door after the horse had bolted,” said McMenemy.