The government needs to step in for the national interest and prevent agency workers on below minimum wage rates running an important part of the UK’s logistics infrastructure.
Union body the TUC has said ministers must step in to run services if a “fit and proper” operator could not be found quickly to replace P&O Ferries. Last week the company sacked 800 workers and replaced them with cheap agency staff – a move that the prime minister yesterday voiced in parliament was possibly illegal.
Additionally, ministers should sever all ties and contracts with P&O’s owner, Dubai-based DP World, until workers are reinstated, the TUC demanded, adding that if P&O Ferries depended on recruiting agency workers paid well below the minimum wage, it was not a sustainable financial operation.
It has been reported that the agency workers from India replacing sacked staff are being paid as little as £1.80 an hour – well below the UK minimum wage of £9.50 an hour.
P&O Ferries bosses will face the scrutiny of the business, energy and industrial strategy and transport select committees today, in a one-off session focusing on the scandal.
The union body said there was a clear precedent for the government taking over the running of vital services. In the rail industry, the Department for Transport stepped in to run services on the East Coast Mainline on two separate occasions following its failure, and last October it took on ownership of the Southeastern franchise.
The disruption to P&O’s services has already caused alarming backlogs in freight delivery and this is leading to supply shortages, it pointed out.
In addition to removing DP World from the parliamentary Transport Advisory Group, all contracts with the company should be suspended, the TUC argued, including its lucrative deals to run UK freeports.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Everyone should be paid a fair wage for a day’s work. If P&O can’t operate without breaking redundancy law and hiring agency workers on a pittance, it hasn’t got a viable business model. The government must be prepared to step in and take over P&O’s freight and passenger services if a fit and proper operator cannot be found quickly.”
On the need to impose proper financial sanctions against the company, O’Grady added: “This is a watershed moment for the UK shipping industry and for workers’ rights in Britain. Under no circumstances can P&O be allowed to get away with its scandalous treatment of staff.
“Its owner must be given pariah status and lose all its government shipping and freeport contracts with immediate effect until workers are reinstated.”
Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, and of the BEIS Committee, Darren Jones, said today’s session in parliament would aim to “understand the detail of the options available to the 800 workers who were roundly dismissed by P&O Ferries last week”. They added: “The cruel nature of their dismissal put employment practices and UK plc under the microscope.
“From P&O Ferries, our members want to know why this action has been taken and how it can be justified. From the government and its agencies, we want confirmation that our laws are not being broken and safety is not being compromised on our ships.
The chairs said the “shocking story” had “raised questions about UK employment law, safety practices, the support of this business through a pandemic and the redress available.”
It will hear from unions, maritime employment law experts, government officials and the chief executive of P&O Ferries, Peter Hebblethwaite.