P&O proves Brexit failed on its own terms

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News emerged this afternoon (March 17) that P&O Ferries has laid off 800 workers. The crew members were briefed during a pre-recorded Zoom message that they would lose their jobs, as the company decided that its ships would be “mainly manned by a third-party crewing provider”.

The details get scarier: it has been reported that private security guards have been sent to a ship docked at Larne Port in Northern Ireland to remove personnel. the Telegraph revealed the company had deployed 16 handcuff-trained officers to the Port of Dover in the event of a ‘backlash’ when redundancies were announced. The captain of Pride of Hull ship in Hull reportedly told P&O that the police would not be allowed on board. Coaches of replacement agency workers wait to board the ship, while personnel who worked on the ship refuse to leave.

“There are two busloads at King George Dock in Hull of cheap Eastern European agency workers hoping to board the ship to sail the ferry tonight,” Karl Turner, Labor MP for Kingston upon Hull east, says LBC.

Leaving the European Union, Brexiteers on the right and left argued, would mean an end to the import of cheap European labor which is ‘undermining’ British workers. But the mass layoff of P&O exposes this argument as a red herring. The problem is not freedom of movement, but a poorly regulated labor market and poorly enforced labor laws, especially with regard to agency work and bogus self-employment.

Time and time again, I have encountered unscrupulous employers outsourcing work to agencies that pay lower wages and provide fewer rights to their workers than permanent employees. From hotel maids, office cleaners and carers working in shoddy agency conditions, to gig economy workers like Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers fighting for labor rights, j have reported on the many cracks and gray areas in UK labor rights over the years.

They existed before Brexit, and now it looks like they will persist after, despite Boris Johnson’s promise of a high-wage, high-skills 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 brought in to fill in at little cost, so Brexit failed on its own terms.

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Boring technical work that involved catching up with UK labor laws with modern working practices, strengthening its enforcement agencies and holding unions accountable would have helped control these ravages of globalisation. But there’s no convenient three-word slogan like “Get Brexit Done” for it.

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