Monday, March 21, 2022

Unions Call for Public to Embargo Ferry Services After Sacking by Zoom Call Scandal

Cut Rate Indian Crews Reportedly Arrive Quayside as Bribes Offered to Officers
Shipping News Feature

UK – Whilst the dismissal of 800 P&O Ferries workers via a Zoom call last week appears to be a spineless way to settle a commercial problem, this is hardly unexpected news on routes traditionally mainly hard to make profitable, particularly in the light of the devastation the pandemic has caused the transport industry.

It would appear now that DP World intends to source labour via agencies, but not only those cheap, below minimum wage operations. There are reports that a new Maltese company, International Ferry Management (IFM) was formed last month with the express purpose of luring senior staff back to their former positions.

These are the officer class, represented mainly by unions such as Nautilus, with talk of £20,000 bonuses if staff take up the positions and remain in post for a year. Officers with Pilot Exemption Certificates are vital to the continuity of service for companies such as ferry outfits. Meanwhile the scramble to the bottom for low paid crews can proceed unhindered.

The way P&O management has handled the situation has left little room for sympathy, a £100 million annual loss obviously needs to be dealt with, but it is not something which blossomed overnight. The fact the beneficial owners are sited in Dubai was always bound to produce a reaction considering the original British roots of the Peninsula and Orient group which spawned it.

When owners maintain the nationally recognised branding of such organisations it is with half an eye on maintaining a persona which sells well to consumers, a situation which stretches right across the commercial field, from cars built in Spain or Mexico which bear German identities, to a myriad of internationally badged items all made in China.

P&O Ferries situation will doubtless have some ramifications for P&O Cruises, these days under the US/IUK control of Carnival Cruises, and nothing to do with the ferry group. In fact DP World owns other companies bearing the P&O headline, P&O Maritime Services, P&O Bulk Shipping and P&O Heritage for example, whilst P&O Dover (Holdings) Limited is said to be Chinese owned on some websites but has the same directors listed as DP World.

The problematic nature, particularly of the Cross Channel services is illustrated perfectly by the fact that at least one director’s name on some P&O companies appeared formerly on that of Townsend, forever associated with disaster on the route. In fact the list of failed and disappeared shipping companies for such a busy, and short service, is impressive.

These stretch from hovercraft and catamarans from Ramsgate and elsewhere (Hoverspeed, Seaspeed, a British Rail/SNCF collaboration) to conventional vessels under the brands SeaFrance, MyFerryLink, Townsend Thorensen, Norfolk Line (was Maersk owned then DFDS), Olau Line, TT Line, LD Lines, Speed Ferries, Euroferries, the list goes on, some companies closing or being taken over, others withdrawing from the trade. The causes cited? Labour problems and insufficient revenues.

With all the Calais bound P&O ships taking down the ‘red duster’ and re-flagging in Cyprus, and all the crews being contracted under Jersey conditions of employment, how could anyone say they didn’t see this coming? When the Chancellors furlough payments ended and low passenger numbers persisted surely the end was obvious? Where DP World offended is the way they went about solving their problem, something unlikely to be forgiven by many of the British public, unless of course they’re cheaper than the opposition.

As to the reaction of the maritime associated unions that has been exactly as one would have expected with the transport and travel specialists at the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) immediately calling for nationalisation of the ferry routes to safeguard trade and travel as well as sending the strongest message that Britain will not stand for such tactics.

TSSA, which represents staff in other ferry companies including CalMac and Stena heavily criticised what it said were ‘bully boy’ tactics with attempts made to march the crews off their ships by security personnel while replacement agency crews waited on the dockside. Manuel Cortes, TSSA general Secretary, said:

“P&O are holding our country to ransom by halting vital ferry trade routes so they can illegally and immorally sack their staff. The Tory government must stand up to P&O bullies who are controlled by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem the owner of the company. The government should nationalise these vital ferry routes which allow people and goods to get to and from our country, P&O must be hit where it hurts!

“The Sultan living far away from our land has hardly got the best interests of our country or P&O's staff at heart. The government should simply take over the running of these routes - sequestrate the vessels if required, so that goods and people can continue to flow from and to our shores and also keep P&O's dedicated, hardworking and loyal staff in jobs.

“And the government must act to tighten our employment laws, enforcement and heavily increase the penalties that bosses who break them face. If what happened yesterday turns out to be legal then it’s imperative the law is changed so that it no longer is. Everyone is appalled at yesterday’s actions, they must not get away with it and it must never be allowed to happen again.”

Nautilus International, which itself represents the professional trades aboard the ferries says the company now has serious questions to answer after making the decision without any consultation with its workforce or their unions. The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) are calling on DP World to engage in meaningful dialogue with affiliates RMT and Nautilus International about P&O Ferries' future, with Paddy Crumlin, President of the ITF and Chair of ITF’s Dockers’ Section, saying:

"These kinds of brutal shock tactics are reminiscent of the infamous Patrick dispute, that represents nothing more than an outmoded and discredited management style. DP World’s callous decision to sack and attack 800 hard-working seafarers represents a brutal attack on their dignity. In doing so, they're breaching laws and failing to meet their own company's standards."

Mr Crumlin should know, being Australian he operates there and we have quoted him many times in the past when he has criticised companies and governments for allowing maritime jobs on domestic route to be placed with the lowest paid international staff. He was supported by ETF President Frank Moreels who echoed this, pointing out that the use of non-union replacement labour amounts to a fundamental breach of workers’ rights to freedom of association. He said:

"Their plan to outsource the jobs is in tatters. Reports are coming in across Europe that their original strategy was to replace the sacked workers with Russian and Ukrainian seafarers. What we're seeing now is a chaotic scrabble to recruit seafarers on anything from two-week contracts through a shady shell corporation with links to the Paradise papers."

In 2019, DP World signed up to the UN's Global Compact (UNGC).  And indeed the company's own policy on sustainability says: ‘DP World is a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and its 10 core principles, which encompass human rights, labour, the environment, and anti-corruption. By signing the UNGC, DP World has committed to align its strategies and operations with these principles’. As Mr Crumlin points out:

"They can’t have it both ways. One minute they’re voicing their support for human rights and ESG principles and the next they’re throwing 800 people out of work with 30 minutes notice."

On March 28, the ITF will raise the case of the P&O Ferries' seafarers at the UNGC Board meeting in Dubai, and ITF’s General Secretary Stephen Cotton has reached out to DP World CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem to discuss this as a priority. Cotton will also deliver a global protest letter, signed by hundreds of unions and thousands of workers addressed to Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem.

One factor that sits badly with the unions is the plea of poverty coming from DP World, a group which has indeed in the past known financial strains. Whilst it views P&O Ferries as an individual case the unions take an overall view of DP World group finances pointing out that it has made record revenue and profits throughout the pandemic, turning over $10.8 billion in revenue and $1.2 billion in profit last year, a 33% increase in profit compared with the previous year.

The company has paid out $376.1 million in dividends to shareholders over the past two years alone. The Times and other sources have reported the scale of government support that DP World received during the pandemic, with over £30 million in emergency funding, including through the taxpayer funded furlough scheme, landing in DP World’s coffers.

The unions insist they are ready to talk but it is hard to see how the DP World actions can now be reversed with security guards boarding the ships and reports of sporadic violence from the quayside. ETF President Frank Moreels takes up the story again with one key accusation:

"A leaked memo has exposed that Ministers were informed of P&O Ferries' intention to sack these workers the night it happened. They did nothing to stop it. For too long the political elites have allowed the rich to get richer, and at the expense of the working class. This dispute will be a line in the sand, the government must act.

"If the company was in actual trouble, which it's not, it should have approached unions. This would have allowed time for fair and reasonable discussions to ensure that these workers' rights were protected and that P&O Ferries’ passengers are not inconvenienced or put at risk by ill-thought decisions.

”Both economically and morally this situation doesn’t wash with us, and it certainly doesn’t wash for the 800 seafarers who’ve lost their jobs. How can a company who is declaring record profits, who has received over £30 million in taxpayer funds, justify this? Or get away with this?"

Now the RMT Union has called on Boris Johnson to meet a delegation of sacked P&O workers saying the government has delayed taking action on legislation that would have protected workers for over two years. The Union has pointed to commitments made in 2020 in a parliamentary debate by the Minister Viscount Younger of Leckie on the need to introduce legislation to stop shipping companies paying below the minimum wage. P&O are using the very fact that they can pay below the minimum wage to sack British seafarers and bring in cheaper labour in this case.

Transport Minister Robert Courts has been quoted as agreeing with the points made by Labour shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh in parliament that DP World’s actions in this case are probably illegal. In that speech by Viscount Younger of Leckie in 2020, he said:

“Maritime is the only sector in the UK that continues to permit this [nationality-based pay discrimination]. The industry will still state that differential pay is the necessary requirement and that seafarers are paid a competitive rate when considered against the average salaries they could receive in their own countries.

”I acknowledge that this remains a difficult argument to accept when it would not be accepted in any other sector. The Government will consider whether further changes are required when the Equality Act regulations are reviewed towards the end of this year.”

Nothing further was done and shipping companies which are registered in other countries and operating routes from UK ports to Europe can pay below the minimum wage because they are exempt from this basic protection, despite that government promise saying that it would examine addressing this weakness in the legislation.

Now it is reported that Indian crews have been arriving quayside to replace the sacked P&O staff, something bound to further inflame the situation locally. The RMT is convinced the new crews will be paid ‘poverty wages’ citing the case of the two P&O ships on the Liverpool-Dublin route which the RMT claims have been crewed with Filipino Ratings who were on contracts which paid a basic rate of $3.47 per hour. RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch concluded:

“The news that the seafarers now on ships in British ports are to be paid 2.38 dollars an hour is a shocking exploitation of those seafarers and another gut-wrenching betrayal of those who have been sacked. The rule of law and acceptable norms of decent employment and behaviour have completely broken down beneath the white cliffs of Dover and in other ports yet five days into this national crisis the government has done nothing to stop it. These ships of shame must not be allowed to sail. The government has to step in now and take control before it’s too late.”

Photo: The first protest on Friday 18th March. This has been followed by more, and larger demonstrations since. Image courtesy of Nautilus International.