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Transport firms slash jobs under Covid-19 cover

Bournemouth, 9 June 2020: Temporarily grounded British Airways planes parked at Bournemouth Airport, Dorset. Photo Mr Chris Kemp/shutterstock.com.

The Covid-19 crisis has presented both opportunity and cover for the owners of transport operators to attack jobs, pay, and conditions of well organised British workers at a time when they are vulnerable…

Employers have been quick to take their Covid-19 problems out on the workers they employ. Hit both in air and sea transport, those workers and unions are fighting back against the attacks.

When much of the world went into lockdown as the Covid-19 crisis gathered momentum and around 3 per cent of the usual international journeys were being made, the skies emptied and airports became jet plane parking lots.

Flybe, already in serious financial difficulties, went bust days after the start of the Covid-19 crisis. Since then, CityFlyer, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic have all announced big job cuts, as has Heathrow Airport. Easyjet announced that around 30 per cent of its 15,000 staff would be sacked.

But the most eye-catching of the announcements was on 28 April when British Airways startled both the public as well as its staff by announcing that it was making 12,000 redundant, having already furloughed 23,000 staff. Not only that, but it threatened to sack the remaining 30,000 staff if they did not accept a new and greatly inferior package of pay, terms and conditions.

The decisions of BA have been savagely attacked, not just by its unions Unite and BALPA (the pilots’ union), but also by Parliament’s select committee on transport.

In a damning report published in mid-June, the Committee accused BA of “a calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to cut jobs and weaken the terms and conditions of its remaining employees”.

Committee Chair Huw Merriman said: “The behaviour of British Airways and its parent company, IAG (International Airlines Group) falls well below the standards expected from any employer, especially in light of the scale of taxpayer subsidy, at this time of national crisis. It is unacceptable that a company would seek to drive this level of change under the cover of a pandemic.”

The Committee’s report is just the latest in a long and growing chorus of criticism, ranging from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State responsible for aviation and maritime transport, to various public figures. They have all expressed their shock at the company’s misuse of the furlough scheme and Bank of England loans to fund the business while it fires and rehires every one of its 42,000 workers.

Global conglomerate

British Airways, once the state-owned national flag carrier, is now part of a Spanish global conglomerate listed on the London Stock Market. IAG also owns Iberia and Aer Lingus and is itself 25 per cent owned by the so-called “Royal Family” of the Middle East statelet Qatar. In 2018, BA made €1.95 billion profit, and its parent company IAG made €3.2 billion. Willie Walsh, the outgoing CEO, was paid £3.2 million in 2019.

Unite the Union also condemned IAG for singling out BA, which contributes 66 per cent of the group’s profit, for its savage attacks on jobs and pay. The union highlighted the fact that the assault on UK jobs comes while IAG has purchased yet another airline, Air Europa, at a cost of €1 billion. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey condemned BA for its “transparent effort to generate profits out of a crisis.” 

He went on: “BA is fooling nobody. The parent company easily has the cash and assets to weather this storm, and if it did not then it would not contemplate for one moment the one billion euro purchase of another airline.”

When the Transport Select Committee asked Willie Walsh about why BA has been singled out, he gave the game away when he conceded that he had already forced through similar changes for Spanish staff in Iberia, admitting that this was his opportunity to bring British workers into line.

BA is fooling nobody. The parent company easily has the cash and assets to weather this storm.”

Unite continues its campaign “BA Betrayal” in support of its threatened members. It projected BA Betrayal images onto iconic landmarks across Britain such as the Houses of Parliament, the Angel of the North, Harrods and the Scottish Parliament, and it is pursuing a vigorous social media campaign using the hashtag #BAbetrayal. 

The transport select committee has urged all British-based aviation employers “not to proceed hastily with large scale redundancies or the restructuring of terms and conditions of employees”, and called for the government to publish a strategy for the restart and recovery of the aviation sector.

But it is not just aviation that has seen workers attacked using Covid-19 as cover. Dubai Ports World, owners of P&O Ferries, has announced extensive cutbacks on its cross Channel ferry routes in May, with over 1,000 ratings and around 100 officers facing redundancy.

P&O operates ferries between Dover and Calais, and from Hull to both Rotterdam and Zeebrugge. The Hull route would see 60 directly employed British ratings sacked from their jobs on the company’s Pride of Hull ferry, while 60 Filipino agency staff working 12-hour days, seven days a week and paid just £4.50 per hour would be retained on the Bahamas-flagged ship. The Dover-Calais route would see the number of ships cut to just three.

P&O wants to reduce rates of pay and other payments, cut sick pay, remove completely any redundancy pay over and above the statutory minimum, introduce lay off clauses, and remove long service benefits and a profit share scheme. It also wants a “no strike” clause in contracts.

Seafarers’ union RMT and ships officers’ union Nautilus International have vowed to fight the proposals, supported by unions GMB and Unite that represent shore-based staff also facing redundancies .

The unions have highlighted the fact that P&O is paying £270 million in dividends to shareholders, and P&O’s owners Dubai Ports World made profits of £1 billion last year. Yet the government is paying millions to the company, whose Chief Executive is Sultan Ahmed bin Sulavem.


P&O furloughed 1,400 staff as soon as the government announced the Job Retention Scheme, pocketing 80 per cent of their pay, worth £10 million.

Recognising the strategic importance of keeping freight moving between Britain and other countries during the Covid-19 crisis, the government announced on 18 May that it would fund operators of roll-on roll-off ferry routes that would not be viable without support. The Freight Support Grants were snapped up by P&O, with the company then managing to negotiate an increase to operate the Hull to Rotterdam route by a whopping 36 per cent to £4,779,369. The company currently receives £14.8 million, 41 per cent of the total British government Freight Support Grants.

Nautilus demanded that P&O drop its redundancy plans while it continued to take advantage of the Job Retention Scheme, while RMT has demanded that the British government should insist on P&O keeping its permanent British staff as a condition for continuing subsidy. 

Unite went on to point out that under normal circumstances, an employer would dispense with agency staff before making permanent staff redundant. The P&O unions also highlighted the fact that while P&O claimed it needed to make savings of around 20 per cent, its proposed redundancies would yield nearer 50 per cent. It also accused P&O of compromising safety standards in an operation already under scrutiny over recent fatalities.

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash wrote to Maritime Minister Kelly Tolhurst demanding that the government bring P&O Ferries into public ownership as a priority, outlaws pay discrimination against British seafarers on British-registered vessels, commits to returning British ferries to being British-flagged, and apply British employment law to British ships.

Tolhurst responded by advising the union that she had received assurances that P&O are committed to sourcing locals to its workforce when traffic picks up again and more staff are needed. What their pay and conditions would be like can only be guessed at, given the high unemployment levels in both Dover and Hull.

The negotiations began with P&O refusing to listen to union proposals that would deliver savings without the drastic cuts proposed by the company. As Workers goes to press, demonstrations called in both Dover and Hull have been cancelled in response to some degree of movement in negotiations.

There will be many more such struggles ahead as the battle begins in earnest about what a “new normal” will look like. Will the future be one where workers and their communities exert much greater power and control, or will it be one where the stranglehold of capital is tightened? There can be no bystanders.