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P&O Ferries ‘big bang’ backfires

Photo: RMT Twitter feed P&OFerries_demonistration_RMT_Twiitter2.jpeg
Even taking into account the lamentable record of the shipping industry’s general treatment of its seafaring workforce throughout history, the cack-handed instant dismissal of 800 ferry workers by P&O Ferries seemed to mark a new low.

Maybe they thought that with so much else going on in the world, “it would be a good day to bury bad news”. Perhaps the bean-counters in DP World Central had, as it is alleged of President Putin, “gone Tonto” and told the UK management it was this or the nuclear option of shutting down for ever. Maybe the reality of slow recovery post-pandemic, Brexit problems and new Irish competitors in the Straits had sunk in and patience among the paymasters had just run out.

Whatever provoked the summary dismissal of the crews, the lack of due process, the appalling insensitivity of employing security guards to clear the ships and the general chaos vested upon the customers, the company clearly did not anticipate the reaction from politicians of all flavours. Goodness know what damage has been done to the P&O Ferries brand as everyone piled in to condemn the action, demanding inquiries into its legality, threatening criminal action or even retaliation upon the parent’s port-related enterprises in the UK.

The truth is that the shipping industry has a long and undistinguishable record of treating its crews as a commodity and changing them at the drop of a hat. Mostly it happens in foreign ports and far from the limelight, with contracts cancelled and the new crew on the wharf as the ship comes alongside. Nobody will make a fuss and the dismissed crew, whose fault would have been a few extra dollars per head in their monthly rate, compared with their replacements, will have packed their bags and silently dispersed.

That is business, in a world where crew managers compare the monthly costs of Philippine crews against the price of Chinese and Indian, and weigh up the cost of Croatian captains against the willingness of Indonesians to work for twice the contract length. And in the great international crewing bazaar, North Europeans must surely rank as luxury items.

The ferry sector has form in this sort of behaviour, although perhaps not as overtly we have seen with the recent mass sackings. The end of last century saw a terrible row in the Baltic, when Fred Olsen decided to replace his Norwegian crews with staff from the Philippines, with threats to break into the English Channel trades. P&O Ferries, still a British brand in the 90s, had to backtrack when news of their plan to employ Chinese catering staff sourced from some chap in Hamburg, leaked out.

There was also a minor flurry when Jim Sherwood thought it would be a tremendous coup to employ Romanians, bussed in from Bucharest, in his fast catamarans. This, to his chagrin was stymied by the UK authorities who were alerted to the fact there was no accommodation in these speedy craft, so the crew would either have to doss down in sleeping bags in the passenger spaces, or get back on the bus at the end of every shift.

But operating ferries in North Europe has never been easy, what with generally overheated competition, fuel costs, the ending of Duty-Free sales and – always – labour costs. So, we have seen flagging out, the gradual use of agency staff, cheaper Asian and East European seafarers and a lot of redundancies with different crewing arrangements and more automation.

But note the word “gradual”, which is very different from DP World’s enforced “Big Bang” last week, when the ill-advised management tried to do everything at once, and found that their hole in the corner hiring policies had backfired. Maybe they thought their Cyprus flag fleet was no different from a Liberian bulker offloading its crew for a cheaper one in the Singapore anchorage in the dead of night.

It was significant that while all manner of political, media and public ordure was being flung over the company, the maritime establishment stayed mum. It was, as I have inferred, just business as usual, in a shipping industry whose labour relations remain stuck in an earlier age.