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From P&O to private schools: protect workers from a hire and fire culture

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P&O Ferries’ attempt to bypass employment laws in its dismissal of 800 seafarers is the product of many of the same woeful UK labour rights that allow fire-and-rehire.

Over the past couple of years employers including P&O, Centrica, British Airways, Clark’s and the Girls’ Day School Trust have destroyed their reputations by seeking to slash terms and conditions to bolster profits. 

For P&O it appears the plan is to replace seafarers on union-negotiated wages with low-paid agency staff thanks to gaping holes in the minimum wage rules as they apply to overseas workers on non-UK flagged vessels.  

For the others, they wanted the same workers back but on lower wages.  

In all cases, bosses sought to impose the changes rather than negotiate them. 

P&O’s particularly wilful breach of legal and ethical norms has been enough to send government ministers scurrying to the broadcast studios to voice their objections. 

But public anguish must be backed up by parliamentary action. We need: 

  • far stronger collective consultation rights 

  • better protection against unfair dismissal 

  • a bigger role for trade unions. 

When the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition government watered down many of these rights a decade ago, unions warned that it would lead to a “hire and fire” culture. From seafarers to schoolteachers, countless workers are now feeling the effects. 

We urgently need the government to bring forward a long-promised employment bill to begin to reverse this. The sorts of reforms that would end fire-and-rehire would also sink the plans of P&O. 

Collective consultation 

What makes P&O stand out is its lack of interest in even pretending to adhere to its legal responsibilities. 

But the same weak rights have been exploited by countless employers, including those undertaking fire-and-rehire. 

Once a company proposes to make more than 20 redundancies – whether or not it will seek to rehire workers – the law says it must consult the workforce and its representatives. 

These are important rights. Why else would the Tory/LibDem Coalition government have cut the consultation time for potential redundancies of 100-plus from 90 to 45 days? 

They give workers and their representatives time to test the plans and make alternative proposals and unions have countless success stories of minimising or avoiding job losses. 

Stipulations on how such consultation is to be conducted might also be enshrined in a collective agreement with a union, and therefore possibly workers’ contracts, as well. 

Many employers flout their obligations to consult in good faith. It is even common for redundancy notices to be issued while the consultation period is still live. 

Ministers have threatened P&O with prosecution (and potentially an unlimited fine) for failing to notify the government in time. But good luck finding previous examples of employers hit with punitive fine. 

Companies can also face paying affected workers maximum protective awards of 90 days' pay. But it appears that  P&O  simply priced in the potential cost of such an award in its offer to dismissed seafarers. 

As a bare minimum:  

  • the protective award cap should be reviewed 

  • collective consultation rights should be extended to all workers, not just employees 

  • the period of consultation should be extended and  

  • the law should state explicitly that no notices of dismissal can be given until the consultation process is completed. 

Unfair dismissal 

Protection from unfair dismissal is extremely limited in the UK. 

Thanks to the Tory/LibDem Coalition, those with less than two years’ service cannot claim unfair dismissal, which excludes huge numbers of those who have changed job or entered the jobs market. 

There is scope for employers to justify their decisions. In the case of fire-and-rehire, employers have used “some other substantial reason”, namely the financial problems of the organisation, as a legal justification for dismissal. 

And there are caps on  pay-outs meaning that, just as it did with its breach of collective consultation rules, it appears P&O has sought to price in the cost of breaching unfair dismissal laws. 

A meaningful review of the law would toughen the tests for a fair dismissal, reconsider the caps on compensation, make reinstatement to a post the primary remedy and allow tribunals to halt lay-offs until an unfair dismissal complaint is heard. 

Stronger role for unions 

Ultimately, unions need to play a greater role in the country’s economic life and act as a bulwark against unconstrained employer power. 

This week ministers bleat that P&O must talk to unions. Yet repeated rounds of legislation have hindered unions’ ability to recruit and mobilise workers against attacks on their pay and their rights. 

Even as the government has found it impossible to find time for an employment bill, it opened a slot in the Parliamentary calendar to pass anti-union rules that will cost unions more than £1 million a year. 

Repeal of the Trade Act 2016 would remove some of the worst excesses that mire unions in red tape and prevent members from taking industrial action. 

The government could also do more to ensure uptake of recently improved rules for the creation of information and consultation agreements.  

Such agreements should give workers important access to information on company financial performance and planned changes to working conditions and jobs. They would therefore be better placed to challenge and remodel employer plans.

From ships to school gates, unions have been active in mobilising workers to protect their jobs and their terms and conditions. The law should assist them, not stand in their way.

We need your help!

Please support P&O workers by signing the petition and make sure no worker can be treated like this again.

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