Unions are accusing the UK Government of failing to strengthen workers’ protections a year after the sacking of hundreds of P&O Ferries employees, saying rogue employers are being given a “free pass to act with impunity”.
The TUC said ministers had failed to act on a series of breaches of the law and had not closed loopholes in minimum wage law, warning that without Government action, another P&O Ferries-style “scandal” could happen.
The union organisation set out four breaches of law by P&O Ferries it claimed had gone unpunished, including a duty to consult over redundancies, unfair dismissal of workers, failure to notify the relevant Government authorities, and breach of director duties.
“P&O Ferries’ directors admitted deliberately breaching the law – and the TUC believes that the directors breached their fiduciary duties.
“The Insolvency Services is responsible for the initiation of director disqualification proceedings but despite serious acts of misconduct, no action has been taken against the P&O Ferries’ directors.
“The Government has also failed to take action to deter other directors behaving like this in the future,” a report from the TUC said.
It warned there were “gaping holes” in the new Seafarers Bill, such as requiring ships to make a certain number of UK stops to fall within the law, meaning that employers whose ships don’t reach a required threshold of using UK ports a certain number of times could still “dodge it”.
The TUC said the sackings were a national scandal, which provoked uproar from politicians at the time such as then-transport secretary Grant Shapps, but the organisation claimed that promised sanctions failed to materialise.
It also said urgent action was needed to clamp down on “fire and rehire”-style practices and urged the Government to increase sanctions on employers who deliberately breach the law, and give workers protection from unfair dismissal from day one in a job.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said that the Government liked to “talk the talk” on protecting workers, but has done “absolutely nothing” as a result of the P&O sackings.
Speaking ahead of a rally in Hull to mark the anniversary, he said: “The mass sacking by P&O Ferries was a national scandal. It should have marked a new chapter for employment rights in the UK, but this Conservative government has failed working people and given rogue employers a free pass to act with impunity.
“Despite behaving like corporate gangsters, P&O Ferries has been allowed to get away scot-free because of our lax labour laws.
“Instead of boosting worker protections and closing legal loopholes, ministers sat on their hands and did next to nothing, and to add insult to injury, ministers are now actively borrowing from the P&O Ferries playbook.
“They are brazenly attacking the right to strike and threatening to rip up hard-won workers’ rights like holiday pay, equal pay for women and men and rest breaks.
“Without stronger regulation, another P&O Ferries style scandal is on the cards.”
Neil Todd, a senior trade union lawyer at Thompsons Solicitors, who acted on behalf of the RMT union at the time, said: “What message does it send to unscrupulous employers if P&O Ferries can get away with paying out what are to them small sums and carry on trading?”
A P&O Ferries spokesperson said: “Significant changes in the last year have saved this business, including the 2,200 jobs we secured in coastal communities across the UK. As a result, we are now serving the needs of our passenger and freight customers much better than ever before.
“During 2022, we carried more passengers between Dover and Calais than any other ferry operator. Through our new flexible operating model, we have optimised sailings to meet customer demand, something we could not have done before.
“We have invested £250 million in our fleet – with our new state-of-the-art hybrid propulsion vessels joining soon – enabling us to thrive in a highly competitive market.”
The company said its investment in new technology and capacity is unprecedented in the UK passenger and freight maritime industry.
“Our business is critical in maintaining supply chains, enabling tourism and supporting UK exports. P&O Ferries ships carry 20% of the UK’s goods trade with Europe,” the spokesperson added.
A UK Government spokesman said: “We reacted swiftly and decisively against P&O Ferries’ appalling treatment of its staff, and have made substantial progress on the nine-point plan we set out last year to improve seafarers’ pay and conditions.”
Justin Madders, shadow minister for employment rights and protections, said: “Despite the howls of outrage and pledges to act, Conservative ministers have utterly failed to take steps to prevent another P&O scandal and have instead ushered in a race to the bottom on workers’ rights.
“The next Labour government will put an end to fire and rehire practices. We’ll turn the page on this shameful episode with a New Deal for Working People to strengthen individual and collective rights at work.”
A Government spokesperson added: “Having brought forward legislation to ensure seafarers are paid at least an equivalent to the UK national minimum wage, and establishing a new statutory code to deter ‘fire and rehire’, we are now working with our near European neighbours to further protect their welfare and pay.”