By Charlie Kimber
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After P&O defeat what will it take to win workers’ rights?

The TUC union federation has slammed inadequate Tory plans to enforce the minimum wage on ferries— but it’ll take workers’ action to force bosses to cough up
Issue 2800
P&O workers and their supporters march behind a banner, some wave union flags

P&O workers and their supporters march in Dover (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The TUC union federation has denounced the lack of a mechanism to enforce new minimum wages in the ferry industry. But the criticism also unveils the flaw in the unions’ campaign over the 800 sackings at P&O. 

The TUC said on Thursday that Tory government plans will be “unworkable” unless enforcement powers are beefed up. Ministers claim they will tackle abuses by ferry companies that do not pay the minimum wage. 

The federation said only the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has the legal right to board ships for inspection to address safety concerns and implement seafarers’ rights. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) inspectors, who are responsible for making sure workers are paid the minimum wage, do not have the legal right to board vessels for enforcement.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, “A lack of enforcement will kick the legs out from under the government’s minimum wage plans. Our weak enforcement regime lets rogue employers like P&O ride roughshod over fundamental workers’ rights. Britain is in the midst of a crisis of enforcement that goes well beyond the maritime industry.

“Ministers must properly fund and empower enforcement bodies so they can recruit and train additional qualified inspectors and inspect more workplaces. That’s how you stop bad bosses from getting away with flagrant labour rights abuses.”

The law has to be rigorously enforced. But stopping “bad bosses” or even “good” ones—whatever that might mean—from abusing workers will never come just from extra inspections. The best guarantee of strictly monitoring and implementing legal rights is a network of organised workers who are fighting back. This can force the boss to concede at least the minimum, whether there is an inspector about or not.

The loathsome P&O bosses are an example of what happens when the union presence is too weak.  Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite acknowledged there were laws he ought to have followed over redundancies, but brazenly admitted he had found it cheaper to ignore them. And he wasn’t scared of the penalty or the unions’ response.

These are the calculations that bosses make. As the Financial Times newspaper said, “While the government expressed shock that a company would in effect buy its way out of the law, lawyers call this an ‘efficient breach’ and it’s not as uncommon as ministers might like to think. ‘Employment rights are all for sale, there’s a price tag on every single one of them,’ one lawyer told me.”

And the Tories let them do it. There are reports that the long-awaited Employment Bill will not be included in next month’s queen’s speech. O’Grady goes on, “If ministers fail to deliver the Employment Bill again, they will be toadying up to bad bosses.”

That’s exactly what they will do. In every workplace, trade unionists have to organise to ensure their legal rights, however inadequate, are respected. But in the wider struggle to turn the tables on the Tories and bosses, only militant action—far more militant and confrontational than was seen at P&O—will win.

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