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Unions trigger UN investigation over UK's failure to enforce laws that protect workers

11 May 2022

An official complaint to the International Labour Organization (ILO) seeks changes to the law to prevent illegal sacking of workers, provide punitive damages for non-compliance, and sector-wide collective bargaining between unions and employers.

A group of trade unions has asked the ILO to urgently intervene on behalf 800 seafarers who were illegally fired and cruelly mistreated by P&O Ferries.

The unions argue that the UK government's failure to enforce relevant labour laws and apply punitive sanctions to ensure compliance following P&O Ferries' illegal firing of seafarers without consultation is a serious violation of the ILO's principles concerning the freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government has also contravened international treaties the UK is bound by.

P&O Ferries' assault on the legal framework triggered workers' representatives to jointly file an official complaint with the ILO about the UK Government.

Co-signatories include the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), seafarers' unions Nautilus International and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT); the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC); the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

ILO director general Guy Ryder. Image: ILO

They consider the matter so serious that they have also requested the urgent personal intervention of ILO director general Guy Ryder, asking him to point out to the UK its failure to abide by internationally recognised labour standards.

'P&O Ferries' CEO has admitted the company behaved illegally when it fired 800 seafarers without warning in March, and he has told parliament he would do the same again,' ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said. 'P&O Ferries has behaved in the most calculated and egregious way and expects to get away with it.'

Laws let companies buy their way out of trouble, workers left with few options

'P&O Ferries has run roughshod over these workers' right to freedom of association and to collective bargaining,' Mr Cotton said. 'That's the consequence of this company blatantly ignoring their legal requirement to consult with the seafarers and their unions, before it sacked them en masse over Zoom, escorted them off the ships with handcuff-trained security guards and replaced them with a non-unionised workforce on just a fraction of the pay.'

Mr Cotton said unions were concerned that under UK law workers could be financially pressured to sign away their rights to legally challenge an employers’ lawbreaking.

'P&O Ferries "priced in" breaking the law and then set about blackmailing the seafarers with gag-order packages worth more than if the workers took P&O to court and won a statutory settlement, buying their legal silence and snuffing out their rights.'

Although P&O's actions were unethical, there were few routes for unions to challenge the actions under current UK law.

'Through the ILO, we're demanding that the UK strengthens their employment laws so that workers can actually rely on the rights the government says they have,' Mr Cotton said.

'There needs to be a genuine deterrent to rogue employers. We want to see directors being disbarred if they wilfully ignore workers' right to consultation. There shouldn't be a cap on the compensation a worker can receive for an employer failing to consult. It needs to be removed so that courts can apply penalties that fit the crime in cases like P&O Ferries' which is fire and rehire on steroids.

'The UK government needed to allow unions and workers to seek injunctive relief from courts which could pause controversial firings and even reverse sackings until an employer conducts the proper consultation.'

Until the UK makes these changes to its laws, the country is in violation of ILO Conventions 87 and 98. ILO C98 obliges the country to 'encourage and promote’ collective bargaining machinery, stipulating that all ‘workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination'.

Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson said: 'Fifty days into this self-imposed crisis, P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite, who admitted to breaking the law, has not paid any price for the illegal sacking of our members. He's got to go.'

Unions demand changes to the law 

  • allow unions to apply for an injunction to prohibit illegal dismissals from taking effect, or to reinstate workers, until full and meaningful consultation has been carried out
  • introduce legislation to establish sector-wide collective bargaining between unions and employers in respect of all ferries serving ports in the UK and make collective agreements binding by law (as under the Wages Councils Act 1976)
  • remove the prohibition on secondary industrial action where the employer in dispute has failed to fulfil a statutory obligation to consult the recognised union
  • make it a criminal offence for a company and its directors to fail to consult the unions, punishable by unlimited fines
  • remove the limit on compensation for failure to consult (it is currently capped at 90 days contractual pay)
  • amend the TUPE Regulations 2006 to allow the unions to apply for an injunction for the transfer proceedings to be stopped until full and meaningful consultation has been carried out
  • amend the Employment Rights Act 1996, to ban the 'fire and rehire' techniques that P&O Ferries used
  • implement stronger, flag-blind legislation protecting all seafarers from all forms of discrimination (allowing the UK authorities more scope to intervene even is a ship is registered elsewhere)
  • amend the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 to make failure to consult grounds for disqualification as a company director


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