A couple of weeks ago, P&O Ferries turfed 800 people out of work with no notice. After the announcement in a pre-recorded video message, hi-vized heavies were sent onto the boats to bundle the workers off to the jobcentre.
P&O is owned by a Dubai-based company, and made profits of £683m last year. And bosses sacking 800 people while they sit on piles of cash in Dubai was a bit much to stomach, even for the callous crooks who run British capitalism.
As a result, we’ve subsequently been treated to a Tory Cinematic Universe of establishment superheroes riding in to save the day. And they’ve come armed with strongly-worded letters and sternly wagging fingers.
Shame on who?
First up was Natalie Elphicke, the Tory MP for Dover, who valiantly joined in the “shame on you” chants during the demos against P&O. Unfortunately, the slow realisation that the chanting was directed at her – since she voted for fire-and-rehire legislation – did burst her bubble a bit.
“It’s not our fault,” stated Elphicke. “It’s just a one-off situation. It’s bad business behaviour by P&O.”
It’s difficult to disagree with such a sensible argument. It’s hard to think of any other time when bosses have sacked workers to maintain profits.
Someone once wrote a book about how capitalism inevitably concentrates wealth at one end of society and misery at the other. But I doubt that has much relevance here.
It's a bit surprising that P&O has such bad business practices. After all, the company’s corporate responsibility handbook pledges: “We will inspire our people and continue to develop outstanding teams.”
The only thing P&O’s teams were out standing on was the shore, having been kicked off the ships. Maybe the bosses forgot to read that bit of the handbook before sacking everyone?
Not to worry though; having torn up their promises to staff just the other week, P&O bosses have now written to their new workers, who earn as little as £1.80 an hour, with a promise never to do it again. That will no doubt have set everyone’s mind at rest.
Politicians to the rescue
The next champion into the ring was Grant Shapps, the Tory transport minister. He gave the P&O bosses a fright when he said: “I want to take the opportunity to put on record my shock and my dismay.” No doubt this has made the bosses think again – they hadn’t counted on having to reckon with the shock and dismay of the transport minister.
The Robin to Shapps’ Batman was the armed forces minister, James Heappey, who chipped in: “I do feel very sorry for those people [who have lost their jobs].”
That heart-warming empathy will, for many workers, make everything better. Which is lucky because the minister went on: “Ultimately this is not something the government can stop.”
The evil genius Peter Hebblethwaite, chief executive of P&O, was even dragged before the parliamentary transport committee to explain himself.
Clearly awestruck by the fearsome crusaders for justice who populate this committee, Hebblethwaite shrugged his shoulders and said quite openly: “Yes I broke the law, and I’d do it again to protect my profits.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson immediately swung into action, donning his superhero outfit and appearing before Parliament as Captain Waffle. “We will take P&O to court,” he bellowed, while Hebblethwaite cowered in a corner.
The powerless Mr Courts
The combined might of Tory ministers, the transport committee, and the courts surely means the supervillain Hebblethwaite and his Dubai paymasters will now be held to account for breaking the law?
Apparently not, according to Robert Courts, a junior transport minister. The appropriately named Mr Courts informed the transport committee that the courts can’t do anything about it. P&O bosses broke the law and ruined 800 livelihoods, but the legal system can’t hold them to account.
If we didn’t know better, we might start to wonder what the law is actually for.
The ancient Greek philosopher Anacharsis had an answer to this. “The law is a spider’s web,” he said. “It catches the small, while the big tear it up.”
Of course, that would make Mr Courts and the rest of his Tory chums the spiders who weave the webs to catch the poor, whilst avoiding their rich pals.
But as we know, our prime minister is a great warden of the law, and has never been investigated by the Metropolitan Police for breaking his own rules, so that can’t be right.
In any case, the small business minister Paul Scully has provoked jubilation among a grateful populace by announcing he’s writing new laws in the wake of this P&O episode.
Scully is on to something here, because it’s almost certain that P&O only broke these laws because they were old ones. When faced with Scully’s new laws, the bosses will definitely not break them.
There is no alternative
The Tories are very sensibly ignoring the comments of Tony Danker, the director-general of the CBI business group, because he knows nothing about how big business owners think.
Danker said: “You can’t legislate for those companies who choose to wilfully ignore or break the rules”.
This, of course, is a silly thing to say. Because its logical conclusion would be that if you want to stop big business from doing whatever it wants and trampling workers underfoot, then passing laws, writing handbooks, and making statements isn’t the answer.
In fact, the performances of all our Tory Cinematic Universe superheroes would then be just a trashy fictional spectacle designed to distract us from the brutality of real life.
The only real option you’d be left with, to stop this P&O scandal being replicated everywhere, is some kind of mass mobilisation of the workers themselves – one that takes big business out of the hands of the bosses, to be run democratically in the interests of need instead of profit.
No need to panic though, this is just the stuff of scary bedtime stories that the Tories and bosses get their nannies to tell their kids.
They can all sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that this appalling treatment of workers – which is becoming the norm in Britain today – is definitely not going to lead, sooner or later, to massive industrial action, social unrest, and a questioning of the capitalist system, on a scale none of us has ever seen before.