In 1820, two years before P&O was founded, cost cutting employers driving down weavers wages led to an unsuccessful rebellion in Scotland. In 1918 cost cutting employers caused race riots. The 1958 race riots were directed against workers imported to undercut native workers. In 2022 P&O sacked 800 workers at a moment’s notice via a prerecorded zoom video.
P&O Ferries fired 800 workers in order to replace them with cheaper workers, citing losses of £100 million pounds and claimed the only alternative was to put the company into administration it turned out the company had spent much more than that on frivolous expenditures such as sponsoring a golf tournament, and received significant funds from the UK government funds pandemic furlough scheme. This continued a long business tradition of wage cutting.
A public backlash and hints of cancellation of government contracts may have been instrumental in the company later offering a compensation package of £36 million (Just where did the money come from) to the sacked staff with claims some would get over £170,000. It looks like the claim of the company being near bankruptcy may have been a little exaggerated if not a PR stunt of Johnsonian proportions in-order to justify the sackings. In any case they demonstrated they have a magic money tree of their own that fruits on demand.
When the CEO of P&O appeared before parliamentary committee he admitted the company had broken the law. The government said he would not be prosecuted. A while later the Metropolitan police said Prime Minister Boris Johnson would not be fined for the parties held in Downingg Street during lockdown: presumably the person who made this decision decided fining the PM would be a bad career move.
In 1820 the advent of the power loom and the resultant deskilling had resulted in weavers moving from a self employed aristocracy of labour to impoverished employees in the satanic mills of the time. In Scotland the magistrates, who had the power to set wages, having been influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, or rather an interpretation cherry picked from the long and sometimes boring book, sided with employers. On the rare occasions when they sided with the workers the employers ignored them. This led to a short and brutally suppressed rebellion in the west of Scotland.
In 1918 soldiers returning to Cardiff after the war found they could not get work at decent wages because employers were importing non-white staff to work in the docks and paying them significantly less. The ex-soldiers blamed the imported workers and race riots broke out. The war had ended the great unrest of 1910 to 1914 but it is likely government was still nervous about social unrest. As a result the soldiers were unable to blame anyone other then those who had the jobs and were getting much less. The resentment spread beyond the docks and riots broke out. The police naturally blamed the immigrant workers.
In 1948 London Transport found they could not attract British workers for the wages they were willing to pay. As a result they recruited workers from the West Indies who came over on HMS Windrush and collected a £10 starting bonus. Again this caused resentment, not only because of competition for jobs but also competition for cheap accommodation of the sort offered by Rachmanite landlords.
The resentment, fuelled by English xenophobia and competition for jobs simmered until 1958 when a chance incident at Ladbroke Grove station in London triggered widespread anti-black riots. The riots lasted till a small group of West Indians armed themselves and drove away a mob besieging a block of flats. After this the police finally stirred themselves into action and some white rioters received exemplary prison sentences.
Corporate Greed and Laziness
The common factor in all these riots was the efforts by the employers to reduce wages, not other overheads. P&O stated they were sacking workers in order to reduce costs and save the company from bankruptcy. The 1918 and 1958 riots indicate that this was not true. Employers wishing to increase profits always take the easy route of trying to dispose of the workers they call their greatest assets rather than reducing their overheads such as lavish offices.
In 2005 there was a scandal in Ireland when it was revealed that one company was paying its seaman €1 per hour. The sacked P&O workers were replaced by Filipino seaman paid £1.60 an hour.
The desire to reduce wages is not new, as the events of 1820 show, but is summarised in the pamphlet summarised by Lafarge in his book The Right to Be Lazy, which was published anonymously, though Lafarge says the author was a great philanthropist who was exasperated that
the English factory hand had got it into his head that, as “Englishman, he had the privilege by right of birth, to be freer and more independent than the working people of any other European nation whatever. Now,” continues the worthy man, “this idea, in so far as it affects the bravery of our soldiers, may be of some use; but the less the factory workers have of it, the better for them themselves and for the state. Workingmen ought never to consider themselves as independent of their superiors............ it is exceedingly dangerous to encourage mobs in a commercial state like our own, where perhaps ‘seven parts of the whole population are persons with little or no property .............the cure will not be complete until the industrial armies are satisfied to work six days for the same amount they now earn in four days.” Thus already a hundred years before Guizot, and more than a hundred years before Atkinson and Depew, the doctrine of work as a bridle for the nobler human passions was preached.
This sort of attitude is related to fear of the poor, fear they will band together, tear the heads off the rich, as in the French revolution and as the Dutch once did, eat the Prime Minster.
The state and the employers can be relieved that the response of the common man to such exploitation is less likely to be a riot nowadays, though a social media backlash seems to have been more effective than a riot. Part of this is the welfare state reducing the desperation that drove some rioters (but this did not stop the 1958 riots). The likelihood of riots as a result of the P&O sackings is fairly low but the response suggests a social media backlash is more effective. The root causes of these problems lie in Neoliberalism, as adopted by the Tories since 1979 and the corruption rampant in the UK, but mainly in London for the last few decades.
Unless the system changes radically situations like this will recur more and more frequently.
At least P&O have not tried to blame this on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but thinking of the £36 Million pound compensation package that suddenly emerged one has to ask again Where did the money come from?
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.