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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

P&O in employment race to the bottom where no one wins


In one of the most egregious examples of the nefarious practice of fire and rehire, P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers via Zoom this week, without notice, attempting to replace them with agency workers on much lower pay and worse terms and conditions.

By using security guards to escort hardworking employees forcibly and inhumanely off their ships, on which they had served in some cases for decades, P&O showed an, at best, "cavalier" approach to business ethics. Consumers have also been badly let down.

P&O received over £150M of furlough support from the British government during the COVID-19 pandemic. It claims that it has been losing £100M a year with its legacy business model, despite its parent company boasting annual profits exceeding £1Bn. P&O's competitors include Brittany Ferries, who are subsidised by the French government.

Diplomatic catastrophe

In what has been an appalling week diplomatically for Boris Johnson:

  • The United Kingdom paid a decades old debt to Iran of £400M, sparking the release of 2 British/Iranian nationals including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on the same day Johnson was meeting with leading OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, to ask them to increase oil production. Given Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting a proxy war in Yemen, the timing was "unfortunate at best";
  • Saudi Arabia killed 4 "criminals" within hours of Johnson's plane landing for his meeting with Mohammad bin Salman. They did not agree to increase oil production;
  • Johnson met with leaders of the United Arab Emirates ("UAE"), including Dubai, to lobby for increased oil production. They refused;
  • No sooner had Johnson arrived back in the UK, P&O's owners "went rogue".

P&O Ownership

This once proud company, providing a vital service by connecting mainland Great Britain to Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Continental Europe is owned by Dubai Ports World, ("DP World") managed by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, a member of the UAE's leading families.

DP World is, via a holding company, owned by the United Arab Emirates' Government. Ultimate responsibility rests with the UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Broken promises

DP World have broken the promises they made on acquiring P&O Ferries. They had pledged:

  • There would be no job losses;
  • To protect cross-channel services;
  • To maintain the pensions of its employees.

Manipulating EU & Maritime law

Not only has DP World's word been broken, P&O's Dubai-based billionaire owners are conducting a race to the bottom by practicing social dumping of existing staff (asserting they are "redundant" which is mendacious) and replacing them with, predominantly Colombian nationals working for substantially poorer pay and with worse conditions.

In an underhand move and manipulation of maritime legislation, the owners registered P&O's fleet of ferries in Cyprus. By doing so, they believed they could dismiss the current workforce as "redundant" and replace them with low-cost agency workers.

Under UK law it is not possible to make people redundant unless the role no longer exists. DP World can only do this because they're operating under EU law.

  • Trade has already been harmed by the worldwide backlog and poor supply of seagoing transports and cargo containers, leading to cost push inflationary pressures cascading through the economy;
  • DP World's decision to suspend P&O's ferry services, shutting cross channel routes from British to continental European ports, can only further harm hard-pressed businesses and consumers alike;
  • Passengers and hauliers have been denied passage on already booked, but now cancelled services. This will not only damage a once respected brand but will also lead to compensation claims that will deepen the company's problems;
  • Cancelling services until such time as agency workers have been appointed is, for a country like the United Kingdom which relies on trade, a threat to national security.

DP World's suspension amounts to economic blackmail against the United Kingdom which must not be tolerated. Furthermore, DP World's decision must be reversed and other operators deterred from following similar measures.

To secure the livelihoods of the sacked P&O workers requires immediate legislative changes and a recognition of the unacceptable influences that have been allowed to penetrate the UK economy and obtain control over our vital industries.

Action plan Inquiry
  • The UK Government should establish an official judge led inquiry into how DP World have operated the business of P&O Ferries;
  • The owners of DP World should be compelled to give and provide evidence as requested.
  • If the company has been unnecessarily burdened with debt, its foreign owners should be held liable.

Legacy European Union laws
  • There must be an immediate and retrospective revocation of legacy EU rules that have enabled P&O's immoral owners to make their workers redundant due to the EU's lax approach to employment law;
  • British rules must take precedence. Under UK law, redundancy can only legally take place following an extensive period of consultation with employees and their union representatives;
  • Unceremoniously and illegally sacking staff can be readily overturned at an employment tribunal. Furthermore, redundancy can only take place if the role and its function has been deleted; any failure to respect those rules will result in substantial unfair dismissal claims.

Help for workers
  • Legal aid should be provided to assist the sacked workers and their trade union representatives to pursue their claims for immediate reinstatement;
  • Diplomatic pressure backed up by punitive economic sanctions must be imposed on the UAE to get them to reverse their decision;
  • The actions of DP World should be legally reversed through legislation;
  • The Government must immediately invest in the dismissed workers training and reskilling to reassure staff that their futures are assured pending the outcome of these legislative changes. This may be funded by a windfall tax on DP World and other UK assets in which the UAE ruling elite have interests.

Help for passengers
  • The Government should aid consumer groups to launch an information campaign to inform passengers that they may be able to claim compensation under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974;
  • British authorities should coordinate with other ferry operators to provide assistance to hauliers and passengers as to other services that they can use;
  • Aid should be provided to service users that have been inconvenienced and suffered loss through DP World's actions. This should be recovered from the UAE based company;
  • Authorities should assist other ferry companies to provide more services to prevent any backlog from emerging. Lorry parks and the M20 motorway leading to the port at Dover need to be provided with sustenance for lorry drivers should substantial queues emerge.

Blacklist DP World and the UAE
  • P&O's licence to operate ferry services in the UK must be revoked until such time as the sacked workers are reinstated;
  • If DP World will not immediately undertake to reverse their decision, P&O should be stripped from them, nationalised, and returned to the private sector after being transferred to British owners;
  • Suspension of further investment from UAE associated sources must be implemented until such time as DP World reverse their decision.

Take back control
  • Ships regularly operating out of British ports should be registered in the UK and operate under UK law;
  • An asset register of key maritime infrastructure should be established;
  • Control and management of these identified companies and facilities shall be conducted by British based companies and subject to a legally mandated code of conduct to abide by UK law and legally obliged to keep services and public utilities properly maintained and operational.

The UAE is directly attacking the economic interests of working people in the United Kingdom.

It is deeply regretful that such a prestigious British company, once a hallmark of the United Kingdom's maritime strength, trade, and prosperity, is now owned by a regime notorious for human rights abuses and exploitation of its own workforce, many of whom are themselves the victims of social dumping.

It is shameful that the fire and rehire economic model, which should have no place in the twenty first century, is still being practiced in the UAE and is now being exported to the UK. The British government must send a clear message that draconian consequences will arise from reckless and reprehensible employment practices by foreign owners. 

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