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Unions brand UK government 'feckless' on P&O sackings anniversary

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Unions have marked the anniversary of the sacking of 786 P&O Ferries seafarers by calling for a crackdown on corporations violating worker’ rights.

“It is unbelievable that one year on from P&O Ferries’ mass sackings there have been exactly zero penalties, fines or charges brought against the company or its disgraced CEO Peter Hebblethwaite by the UK government,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

“Despite all the rhetoric and bluster, despite Rishi Sunak calling P&O’s actions ‘‘appalling’, the UK government has proven totally feckless when it comes to actually holding this company to account once the cameras were switched off.”

The sacked seafarers were replaced with agency workers from overseas who were paid below the UK national minimum wage owing to a loophole in the law.

ITF, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) and UK unions have demanded that the UK government reach agreements with its neighbouring countries to set work and pay standards for ferry routes to and from the island, avoiding an erosion of worker protections and safety standards.

Unions RMT and Nautilus have called for the Seafarers’ Wages Bill to be extended to cover agreements between unions and operators on employment conditions and safety conditions including setting a maximum length of time at sea.

The unions claim that the law in its current form would not have prevented the P&O debacle were it in force last year. The proposed amendments to the law would allow unions to apply to the court for injunctions to “suspend sackings from taking effect until proper procedures had been demonstrated to have been followed by employers.”

The courts would be empowered to enforce those injunctions, and to reinstate wrongly dismissed workers.

“From our perspective, we can see it has become too easy for corporations to exploit workers not just in Britain, but across Europe, and too hard for workers to fight back. Without a rebalance towards fairness, Britain risks further deepening the shortage of workers in transport, and the big or transnational corporations will not be the ones coming with the needed solutions”, said General secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, Livia Spera.

“By allowing employers to treat its citizens’ legal and contractual protections as merely ‘optional’, the UK government is giving the green light to a race to the bottom in transport, in safety, in wages – and that drives down standards across the whole of Europe.”

Spera said P&O Ferries is a disgrace to the European ferry sector, Hebblethwaite was crowned ‘Worst Boss in the World’ at the 2022 ITUC Congress in December.