Scottish ship workers stand defiant

Exploitation is hardly new to shipping industry workers, but a recent wave of mass redundancies from P&O ferries has triggered renewed outrage. Conrad Landin reports from Cairnryan, Scotland, where the movement to restore jobs is gaining momentum.

Men stand with a banner that reads ' Save our seafarers' and union flags
Saying 'no' to worker exploitation in Cairnryan on Wednesday 23 March. Credit: Conrad Landin

Since P&O ferries announced the sacking of 800 seafarers last week, Britain has been hit by a wave of shock – and anger.

Nowhere has that been more vociferously voiced than on demonstrations by P&O workers and their unions. In spite of P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite’s brazen admission that the company broke the law, it appears there is little chance of the company and its bosses facing justice.

By paying enhanced redundancy terms, P&O is likely to avoid any penalties for failing to consult its workforce over the job losses. P&O insists its ‘new model’ of operation is sufficiently different to merit the term ‘redundancies’ – but it’s clear that the work is still there, and will simply be done by workers on lesser rates of pay.

Trade unions, however, know too well there is little chance of Britain’s rightwing government taking meaningful action unless it becomes too much of a political hot potato to ignore. When two coach loads of transport workers and their supporters arrived in Cairnryan on Wednesday, that was what they hoped to achieve. Lying to the southwest of Glasgow, the port is the main ferry terminal connecting Scotland with Northern Ireland – including P&O Ferries’ service to Larne.

Organized labour has swiftly realized that if P&O’s sackings are allowed to stand, a domino effect could knock down the entire infrastructure of industrial relations

As well as members of RMT and Nautilus, the two maritime unions representing P&O workers, there were contingents from Unite and the University and College Union – the latter having travelled directly from picket lines at the University of Glasgow, where they have been on strike. Organized labour has swiftly realized that if P&O’s sackings are allowed to stand, a domino effect could knock down the entire infrastructure of industrial relations.

‘P&O haven’t just picked a fight with a group of brilliant workers and with two brilliant unions,’ Scottish Trades Union Congress deputy general secretary Dave Moxham told the crowd. ‘They’ve picked a fight in Scotland with 550,000 unionized workers. We know the threat that they pose not just to your members but to the whole of the movement. And we are going to use this as our opportunity to fight back and kick back.’ He pledged the STUC’s support for a blockade of P&O ships – and said the objective was not just to prove the illegality of P&O’s actions, but also to demonstrate that illegality by making sure any company which acted similarly was ‘unable to function’.

Labour and SNP politicians made impassioned speeches condemning the sackings. The local politician with the most power to act, however, gave the demo a miss. Constituency MP Alister Jack is also Scotland Secretary in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet. While he has joined his party colleagues in speaking out, unions have identified a number of ways in which the UK government could exercise real leverage.

One demand is the cancellation of contracts awarded to P&O’s parent company to run the country’s second and third largest ‘free ports’ – a scheme which essentially turns trading hubs into miniature tax havens. Another is that P&O should be nationalized – which even if it only remained a threat, could force the company to reinstate workers.

‘The government including the Prime Minister have made all the right noises about what has happened, expressing outrage and sympathy, but the ball is in their court to do something about it,’ said Neil Todd, of the trade union law firm Thompson’s, which is acting for the RMT. ‘It is of paramount importance that behaving as P&O has done brings severe legal and financial punitive consequences imposed by Government irrespective of any legal action taken by workers.

‘The government needs to make clear, through litigation and legislative change, that companies who ride roughshod over the basic rights of any worker anywhere in the UK are behaving unacceptably and will face substantial negative financial consequences.’

Since the day of the sackings, RMT, one of Britain’s most militant and successful trade unions, has taken every opportunity to place the fiasco in the context of a failed system. ‘We’re here in solidarity, we’re here in unity, we’re here in defiance against the bandit capitalists of P&O,’ RMT organizer Gordon Martin said at the Cairnryan demo.

Two people hold a banner in solidarity with workers
In solidarity. Credit: Conrad Landin

As the first instigator of globalization, it’s perhaps no surprise that the shipping industry has a long tradition of ruthless exploitation on deck. RMT has repeatedly raised the alarm over the use of ‘flags of convenience’, under which vessels are registered to far-away countries they will never visit in order to avoid national labour standards. Prior to last week’s news, P&O’s ships already sailed under the flag of Cyprus. The workers sacked last week were mainly British nationals, employed by a company in the tax haven crown dependency of Jersey. But rather than giving notice of the job losses to ministers in Britain, or even Jersey for that matter, P&O claims to have picked up the phone to the Cypriot government.

The new workers will be paid an average of £4.80 an hour, according to P&O – well below the UK minimum wage. RMT has alleged that some Indian workers on the Dover to Calais route are being paid as little as £1.80 an hour

The new workers, escorted onto ships by private security guards also charged with evicting long-serving staff, will be paid an average of £4.80 ($6.30) an hour, according to P&O – well below the UK minimum wage. RMT has alleged that some Indian workers on the Dover to Calais route are being paid as little as £1.80 ($2.40) an hour.

Since the sackings, social media has been awash with comments holding up the P&O fiasco as evidence of the stupidity of Brexit. And having supported Brexit (putting it in the minority among British trade unions), the RMT has been accused of shooting its members in the foot.

Of course leaving the European Union has had a negative impact on ferry transit to the continent – though Covid-19 arguably more so. But P&O’s behaviour is in fact the very model encouraged by the EU establishment.

European courts have handed down a number of judgments restricting workers’ ability to go on strike against attempts to undercut organized labour. One such ruling, Viking Line, related to an eerily similar case in which a Finnish ferry operator replaced its workforce with Estonian employees who could be paid less.

Unions are well aware that the far right – which has significant pockets of support in British port towns – may seek to capitalize on the P&O case to stoke up racial tensions. But in building solidarity between shipping workers across borders – RMT has received supportive messages from sister unions around the world – the labour movement is determined to defeat divide-and-rule tactics. As the old saying goes: united we stand, divided we fall.