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17 March 2022

P&O proves Brexit has failed on its own terms

800 crew members have been replaced by “cheap agency workers from eastern Europe” overnight.

By Anoosh Chakelian

News emerged this afternoon (17 March) that P&O Ferries has sacked 800 workers. Crewmembers were told over a pre-recorded Zoom message that they would be losing their jobs, as the company has decided its ships will be “primarily crewed by a third-party crew provider”.

The details get more chilling: it was reported that private security guards have been sent on to one ship docked at Larne Harbour in Northern Ireland to remove staff. The Telegraph revealed that the firm deployed 16 handcuff-trained officers to the port of Dover in case of a “backlash” when redundancies were announced. The captain of the Pride of Hull ship in Hull is reportedly telling P&O that police will not be allowed on board. Coaches of replacement agency workers wait to board the ship, while staff who worked on the ship are refusing to leave.

“There are two busloads at King George Dock in Hull of cheap agency workers from eastern Europe who are hoping to be boarding the vessel to sail the ferry this evening,” Karl Turner, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East, told LBC.

Leaving the European Union, Brexiteers on both the right and left argued, would mean an end to importing low-cost European labour that “undercut” British workers. But the P&O mass lay-off exposes this argument as a red herring. The problem was not freedom of movement, but a loosely regulated labour market and poorly enforced labour laws, particularly relating to agency work and bogus self-employment.

Time and again, I have come across unscrupulous employers outsourcing work to agencies that pay lower wages and allow fewer rights to their workers than permanent employees receive. From hotel maids, office cleaners and carers working under shoddy agency conditions, to gig economy workers like Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers fighting for labour rights, I have reported on the many cracks and grey areas of UK employment rights over the years.

They existed before Brexit, and now it looks like they will persist after it – despite Boris Johnson’s promise of a high-wage, high-skill economy. (Indeed, the owner of P&O Ferries, a Dubai-based multinational called DP World, is also a major investor in the first post-Brexit freeport.) If staff can be laid off by multinationals like this, while agency workers – whether from the UK, Europe or beyond – can be made to fill in on the cheap, then Brexit has failed on its own terms.

A dull, technical slog that involved catching the UK’s labour laws up with modern working practices, beefing up its enforcement agencies and empowering trade unions would have helped keep these ravages of globalisation in check. But there’s no handy three-word slogan like “Get Brexit Done” for that.

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