Labour has unveiled plans for laws to prevent any repeat of the P&O case, when hundreds of workers were sacked on the spot and replaced with cheaper agency workers.
On the anniversary of the sackings, the party says it will put it to an end to “fire and rehire” once and for all with a five-point strategy, including forcing employers to “properly consult and reach agreements” with staff on any changes to contracts.
The government is consulting on a code of practice for employers, but Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said ministers would not ban the behaviour, judging that it is still “acceptable in some circumstances”.
A year ago today, P&O Ferries caused outrage, with protests by workers, by making all its 786 UK crew redundant without notice.
The company, which did not consult trade unions, said it took the action to save the company from closure, with the loss of 3,000 jobs, after it lost £100m in a year.
Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite admitted to MPs that the company had broken the law and refused to comply with the demand of transport secretary Grant Shapps to take the employees back.
He wrote: “We carefully considered all feasible options and painstakingly explored all possible alternatives. Still, we concluded that we had no choice but to act as we did for compelling business reasons. Had we failed to do so, we would have risked the entire company collapsing with the loss of 3,000 jobs.”
Mr Shapps urged regulators to disqualify Mr Hebblethwaite on the basis he was “unfit to lead a British company” and announced a nine-point plan to strengthen seafarers’ employment rights.
Criminal and civil investigations were launched into P&O’s behaviour, but the company escaped prosecution and no action has been taken against Mr Hebblethwaite.
Unions have accused the government of failing to strengthen workers’ protections, and the TUC warned a similar “scandal” could happen.
Labour accused ministers of giving “fire and rehire” the green light, as it unveiled plans to end the practice under its “New Deal for Working People”. It said it would do this by:
- Requiring that employers properly consult and reach agreements with their staff about any changes to contracts
- Preventing workers from being dismissed if they don’t agree to a worse contract
- Ensuring unions can protect terms and conditions when fire and rehire tactics are used
- Protecting at-risk workers by making the seafarers’ welfare charter legally binding
- Bringing forward the investigation into Mr Hebblethwaite, which has still not concluded, and making sure lessons are learnt
Ms Rayner, in an article for The Independent, dubbed the sackings a “cold-hearted, brutal affair”, writing: “While P&O represents the most egregious example of fire and rehire in the pandemic, the practice continues to spread like wildfire.
“The TUC estimates that 1 in 10 workers – almost 3 million people – have been subject to fire and rehire tactics.
“Never again should any company think that they can treat British workers with such contempt – and be given the green light by the government to do so.”
Ms Rayner and shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh say their plan will also benefit employers who do right by their staff.
A government spokesman said: “We reacted swiftly and decisively against P&O Ferries’ appalling treatment of its staff, and have made substantial progress on the nine-point plan we set out last year to improve seafarers’ pay and conditions.
“Having brought forward legislation to ensure seafarers are paid at least an equivalent to the UK national minimum wage, and establishing a new statutory code to deter ‘fire and rehire’, we are now working with our near European neighbours to further protect their welfare and pay.”
A P&O Ferries spokesperson said: “Significant changes in the last year have saved this business, including the 2,200 jobs we secured in coastal communities across the UK. As a result, we are now serving the needs of our passenger and freight customers much better than ever before.”