The P&O Ferries scandal could turn the tide against neoliberalism

The firm’s brutal sacking of its staff doesn’t come out of nowhere, but from 40 years of failed economic thinking. The fury it has provoked may herald change

March 18, 2022
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

If you needed reminding what class war looks like, P&O has duly obliged.

After summarily dispatching 800 of its loyal, liveried staff in a three-minute Teams call, it sourced handcuffed heavies to clear them off the vessels. P&O has no intention of going down with its workforce, but is resolved to sail on. The next explicitly stated step in the masterplan of the famous shipping firm—nowadays owned by the Dubai oligarch Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem’s logistics giant DP World—is to recrew the boats through a “third-party crew provider.”

All this only makes sense if the unfortunate skivvies of this new middleman will be on substantially worse terms than the sacked workers replaced. The union expects that they will be recruited en masse from a lower-wage country.

From one point of view, this horror story might look like the apogee of the freewheeling hiring and firing which characterises the neoliberal labour market. But to me, it looks more like something else: dangerous overreach for the system. Indeed, I can’t help seeing in this sacking an inverted reflection of another mass firing of transport workers, which marked the dawn of the neoliberal age.

In 1981, the then-new President Reagan responded to a strike by air traffic controllers by terminating their individual contracts and replacing them with new personnel. No law held him back—the strike breached certain formal rules, and these were employees of his federal government. But until he made the move, it was simply seen as “unthinkable.” Forty-four years had passed since the 1937 refusal of President Roosevelt to send troops to Flint to oust the workers then occupying General Motors’ plants. Ever since, as Gary Gerstle emphasises in a new history of neoliberalism which I’m about to review for Prospect, it had been understood that the authorities expected managers to strive for a respectful accommodation with their unions. But suddenly, the awed titans of corporate America looked at their new president and thought: “we didn’t know we could do that; maybe we should do that.”

The P&O case is the opposite in the sense that it is a doubling down, rather than a turning of the tide, on a trend in industrial relations which has been running against workers across most of the world’s advanced economies for 40-plus years since Reagan.

Unlike in the American air traffic controllers’ story, in the new shipping saga there are questions about the legality of the procedure followed by management, which are being pressed not only by the trade union, but also the Conservative chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman. The company could not be reached for comment.

But whatever the law, there is a sense in which the brutal move is in keeping with the spirit of the times. After all, various government “reforms” since 2010 have tried to pare back employment protections and make them harder to enforce: the qualifying period for protection against unfair dismissal was doubled; stiff fees were introduced for those wanting to take a case to an employment tribunal (before being struck down by the Supreme Court). We are in an environment where it can be tempting for managers to dismiss and settle-up with most workers first, and then take any legal trouble from the odd refusnik on the chin, as one more cost of doing business.

Other companies, including in transport, have recently made sweeping moves on the terms of employment for some staff. British Airways’ pandemic initiative to fire-and-rehire some of its long-serving people drew particular ire, but last year the government blocked a bill to restrict such an approach. Other ferry providers have been charged with wholesale reliance on cheap, imported labour.

But the attitudes underlying the latest sharp-elbow practices trace further back. Back in 2005-06 I was working at the Department for Trade and Industry under the Blair government, and can remember being shocked by discussion around “posted workers.” Some voices in Whitehall and the European Commission were arguing that employees from countries such as new EU member Poland should be covered only by the far lower minimum wages and other basic employment protections that then prevailed at home. This could have been an invitation for P&O-style practices writ large across the economy.

These voices didn’t win out on that occasion, but the fact they got a serious hearing so close to power underlines just how fixated the economic discussion had become on minimising business costs and maximising efficiency—to the exclusion of everything else. We are in the grip of a mindset 40 years in the making, and are left with employers that no longer say, as in 1981, “we didn’t know we could do that.” Instead they dream up schemes that reduce their staff to commodities and then ask themselves: “why wouldn’t we do that?”

If the long reign of neoliberalism has brought us to this pass, I dare to hope that stories like this could be its undoing. It is not only Labour MPs and union leaders denouncing P&O today, but Conservative ministers and the old Thatcherite Nigel Farage. Some will question their sincerity, but the right feels compelled to speak out because they understand how furious the public will be. So, too, do editors across even the most right-wing titles in our oligarch-owned press. The Mail splashes on “Mutiny,” the Expresscries “Betrayal,” and the Sun goes with “What a bunch of anchors!” That last one is especially ironic given the trail-blazing union-busting and mass dismissal that the title’s owner Rupert Murdoch pursued in the Wapping dispute of the 1980s.

With that sort of publicity, even if P&O can tough it out through the fury, they may find that many of us shun them on future holidays. Indeed, the hugely experienced former BBC journalist Rory Cellan-Jones tweeted a few hours after the announcement: “Spent the evening with a group of businesspeople who were slackjawed with amazement that the board could have approved” a scheme he felt certain would “backfire.”

Let’s hope so. For if P&O is soon forced to turn the tiller away from this week’s cruelty, it could be a heartening sign of a turn in the deeper tide, which has for so long been running against working people.