Ross Clark

What the P&O debacle really tells us about Brexit

What the P&O debacle really tells us about Brexit
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It goes without saying that sacking your entire staff via a ten-minute video call while their cheaper, foreign replacements sit outside in buses is a pretty disgusting way to treat people. True, P&O’s cross-Channel operation has been rendered unprofitable as a result of Covid, but this wasn’t a case of a headcount reduction or management urging pay restraint until the company can get back on its feet again. It was a wholesale dismissal of workers, plenty of whom will have had decades of service. No wonder some refused to leave their ships.

How ironic, however, that so many of the biggest critics of P&O this week are ardent Remainers. What the shipping line has done is exactly what so many employers were doing during the latter years of our membership of the EU: taking advantage of free movement in order to go over the heads of British workers and bus in much cheaper foreign workers instead. P&O's actions have become newsworthy only because they are so unusual – it simply isn’t possible now, in most cases, to bus in low-paid employees from abroad. They now need work permits and must have been offered a job earning upwards of £30,000 a year. P&O has only been able to do what it has done because different rules apply to foreign-registered vessels.

This is what the Remain campaign never understood about Brexit: that low and modestly-paid workers in the private sector could see that leaving the EU was very much in their personal interests. Instead, the Remain campaign patronised them, making out that they were too stupid to understand how Brexit would harm them. But leaving the EU hasn’t much hit the lorry driver I was speaking to recently, who said his wages had risen by 60 per cent in a matter of months 'after years of being underpaid'. Post-Brexit life might be less agreeable if you're a middle-class homeowner searching in vain for a tradesman willing to put up your extension for a song. But it is a very different story if you are one of the tradesmen being fought over. The labour market boot is now firmly on the other foot.

The P&O redundancies might strike some as a new low in the treatment of workers by callous employers. But really it is just a flashback to a Britain that existed between the early 2000s and Britain’s departure from the bloc two years ago.