The sacking of 800 workers by P&O Ferries is devastating for every single one of them. The staff, some of whom have served the company for decades, were told – by video call – that they were no longer employed, with immediate effect.
The news has been widely criticised, with MPs describing the company’s behaviour as “callous” and “disgraceful”. One union said it was a “shameful” move, while protests against the ferry company were held at several UK ports.
Lawyers will no doubt be involved in the aftermath over the coming weeks and months. And a key question for them to examine will be whether it is legal to dismiss staff summarily on the grounds of redundancy. One would imagine that the company’s own lawyers had already signed off on the precise wording of the statement delivered by a company executive on the afternoon of March 17, 2022.
In it, the executive tells P&O staff: “The company has made the decision that its vessels going forward will be primarily crewed by a third party crew provider. Therefore I am sorry to inform you that this means your employment is terminated with immediate effect on the grounds of redundancy. Your final day of employment is today.”
Dismissing staff on the grounds of redundancy is indeed legal under UK employment law – if the employer can demonstrate a need to reduce the number of staff, or if the business is ceasing to trade.
But with P&O, so far I have seen no mention of a need to reduce the staff count, nor of any plans to stop sailing ferries. Some then, will conclude that the dismissal of 800 people is based on a strategy designed to save money.
Even when an employer needs to make staff redundant, there is a requirement for consultations with those involved and the appropriate trade union. If P&O is found to have ignored the legal procedure of redundancy, this would amount to unfair dismissal of all the staff involved.
From a broader perspective, it is also worth asking if P&O thought it could just replace staff with cheaper agency workers. Has the UK’s precarious jobs market – and the government which oversees it – been giving the wrong message to employers?
The price of cost cutting
From a purely financial perspective, agency workers are clearly good value for (not much) money. They are often on zero hours contracts; they do not have access to most employment rights, such as sick pay and holiday pay; they can be fired and rehired at any time; and they do not have the backing of unions or employment tribunals.
But from a social perspective, the costs are very high. The negative impact of such precarious contracts on workers’ health, finances, career prospects and security have all been well documented. Calls to ban zero hours contracts because of their detrimental effects have so far been ignored.
Yet these workers need protection, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the UK economy and society as a whole. Since Brexit, and thanks in part to the pandemic, the UK has lost 200,000 EU workers, resulting in drastic staff shortages in a range of sectors including healthcare, haulage, hospitality and farming. The UK will surely lose more workers if they don’t feel their jobs are safe.
Those who argue for the flexibility of zero hours contracts usually have either students or those approaching retirement in mind. But events at P&O show the huge harm that potentially can be done when companies are able to replace loyal staff with cheaper alternatives.
For the moment, then, as 800 staff and their families face uncertain futures, the UK is miles away from making its labour market secure for its workers. The current climate of soaring prices and rising inflation makes their situation even worse – surely time for the government to take a fresh look at banning the rampant use of precarious and cheap labour, and removing the power of employers to dismiss staff in what appears to have been such a brutal way.