Blog: P&O is just a symptom, the government must fix the disease

We need to act now and make sure the government kills off fire and rehire for good while the public is still outraged at what has happened at P&O Ferries

P and O ferry approaching land

At least we can be grateful to P&O Ferries for one thing – shining a light on the disgraceful employment practice of fire and rehire after it sacked its whole seafaring workforce on a pre-recorded video call.

The way the company acted – replacing 800 loyal workers with agency staff and having to escort them off the ships with security guards, not to mention the Dubai-based owners paying out £240m in shareholder dividends in 2020, while claiming P&O Ferries wasn’t a viable business and it couldn’t afford to pay its staff a decent wage – has forced the dodgiest of employment practices onto the front pages more effectively than any number of trade union campaigns.

But this isn’t the first time fire and rehire has been used. And unless we act now, it won’t be the last.

Fire and rehire is the controversial technique in which a company sacks staff before telling them they can apply for their old jobs on less favourable terms. Weetabix, Tesco and British Gas are among the companies to have deployed the tactic in the past.

But the P&O case isn’t even a straightforward case of fire and rehire. Rather than rehiring staff to their old jobs, it is replacing them with agency workers and saying that sacked staff could, if they wanted, join those agencies – for much less pay, of course.

However whichever way you look at it, whatever you call it, this and all cases of fire and rehire are reprehensible and this latest example has clearly demonstrated that the UK’s employment laws are not fit for purpose.

The Westminster government needs to act and act quickly to show that bad bosses cannot continue to treat loyal workers as a commodity, to be traded for a cheaper option when the economic climate, or the accountants say so.

But so far, the Conservative government is resorting to type. Outrage and soundbites aimed at P&O Ferries – but no firm action or a plan to fix the wider problem. I question whether the desire is even there.

UNISON has long campaigned for employment laws that put workers at the heart of public services – or any business – and an end to exploitative working practices that demean and disrespect. Every single person deserves dignity and respect at work. It isn’t too much to ask.

I have assured our sister trade unions in this dispute of our continuing solidarity and unwavering support. And, as ever, I encourage workers to join a union.

Because if we don’t come together and root out this insidious fire and rehire practice – and drag our employment laws into the 21st century – who knows who will be next.