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P&O Ferries and the modern robber barons

The effective sacking by P&O Ferries of 800 of its staff last Thursday has led to almost universal condemnation. Staff who are in dispute with P&O over wages were removed from the ports where they work– including at Larne in county Antrim – by security staff armed with hand cuffs and replaced with agency workers from outside of Britain and Northern Ireland. These “scabs” as they are known in common parlance, had been waiting in buses to take up their new positions.

While older viewers may recall a time when the Tories would have been almost certain to have taken the side of the bosses on such an issue, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was one of the first out of the blocks to describe the move as “completely unacceptable.” As indeed it is, by most standards of how to treat people, never mind any reference to employment legislation.

It was pointed out that P&O’s parent company, DP World, paid out £270 million in dividends in 2020, and has found lavish funds to sponsor elite sports such as the 2022 European Golf Tour.

In Britain, both sides of the Brexit debate have sought to use the sackings to bolster their side of that lingering divide. Pro-Brexiteers on the right and left have argued that it is evidence that Johnson’s government have done nothing to tighten up domestic law against the consequences of the lack of constraints on the “free movement” of capital and labour; while opponents of Brexit have claimed that P&O would not have been able to do this if the UK was still in the EU.

Neither are correct. The use of lower-wage agency workers to undermine existing employment conditions and wages is common across the European Union and we have documented instances of this here in relation to Keelings for example. Likewise, national sovereignty as a legal concept is meaningless unless specific measures are put in place to ensure that this applies to corporate capital.

Those who worship at the altar of “free enterprise” will say that this is just a consequence of the laws of the market and that the modern-day equivalent of sending small boys up chimneys and little girls to sit at cotton looms for 18 hours a day will all work out for the best. Well, it didn’t. Nor will it because those with wealth need, or ought to be, subject to the same constraints as everyone else if their pursuit of individual interests harms the common good – as outlined in the Papal social encyclicals of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

This directive applies as much to the state as it does to the classical robber barons and indeed in the case of P&O the villain of the piece is not only your classical top hatted baron – as seen at Royal Ascot and Goodwood and sometimes the Curragh in the persons of the al-Maktoums – but also a state. The state being Dubai which is the nominal owner of DP World which controls P&O Ferries.

The al-Maktoums are the modern embodiment of Louis XIV’s declaration that “l’État, c’est moi.” As could equally be claimed by the Maktoum’s equivalents in the Castro and Kim dynasties. The “people” of Dubai and Cuba and North Korea may be the formal owners of parts of the economy, but they don’t all get to own the winner of the Epsom Derby, or their own private islands in the Caribbean or a fleet of classic cars.

The current boss of the Maktoum manor and of Dubai, which is basically the same thing, is Sheilk Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Last year the High Court in London ruled that this chap, who is slobbered over shamelessly by some of the worst English and Irish horse racing pundits, had been complicit in the abduction of two of his daughters.

Some of this will be known to Irish people because our own former President and stalwart of human rights Mary Robinson became involved in an attempt to prove that one of the bould Sheik’s daughters Latifa was as happy as a young filly on the Godolphin gallops in the family bosom in Dubai after the young woman complained that she was being held against her will.

Robinson’s intervention came after Latifa had fled Dubai in 2018 but was then abducted and taken from a yacht off the coast of India in March that year. Despite the intervention of friends of the Maktoums, Latifa’s efforts to convince people of the truth of her own story appear to have been successful.

Another charming feature of the glamorous Maktoums and the feudal aristocracy of Dubai is that they appear to keep slaves. Or rather – in keeping with the legalese that would depict Irish transportees to the West Indies in the 17th century as modern-day agency workers – “indentured servants.”

These are people, most of them from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who find employment of various kinds in Dubai and the other emirates through agencies which hire them out for jobs that are subject to little or no health or safety or employment regulations and to which they are effectively bonded by the withholding of their wages.

Contracted agency work in western Europe is not that bad, but operates on similar principles. So, you can see why the Maktoums and their contractors in P&O have no difficulty in treating their employees in Britain and Ireland like crap.

In this dispute, there really ought only to be one side.


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