P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers last week, replacing them with agency staff. One anonymous seafarer working the Irish Sea ferry route for many years describes the impact of abruptly losing his job and way of life.
When you speak to ferry passengers they’re sometimes quite surprised you actually live on board the ship. It’s more than just a workplace. With your shipmates you’re living, eating, working together, doing all the domestic stuff like watching television, you’re the police, ambulance and fire brigade – you’re self-sufficient.
So when P&O-hired security boarded our ship, it wasn’t just a sacking. It was an eviction.
I’ve worked on the Irish Sea crossing from Scotland to Northern Ireland for many years, and been at sea since I was 17. It’s intensive work. It’s a non-stop operation, so we work 12-hour shifts for two weeks at a time. Then you have two weeks off. But it’s not leave, it’s rest. You’re shattered. The noise and the vibrations of the ship mean sleep is a lot more unsettled, especially when you get bad weather. The trip before the sacking we got three storms in a row. It can get rough.
On Thursday, it was around 6.30am, when the ship was unloading the freight, that we got an order not to load it up for the normal 8am crossing. Then there was word other ships across the UK had been ordered to stand down too. This felt serious. I’d been up for hours and was exhausted. But me and the other guys were desperate to know. I was full of nervous energy.
The captain was instructed by superiors in Dover to allow security guards to enter the port and board the ship. We saw them arriving like a funeral procession, these five cars coming into port and driving slowly towards the ship. One man read a prepared statement: “You’re dismissed.”
We were escorted one by one to our cabins. There were two guards with me as I packed up years and years worth of gear. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to the crew, which becomes like your family. It was disgusting, brutal, shocking. We were just escorted to a shuttle bus. I went home to my daughter, dazed and astonished.
When you’ve worked on the same ship for many years like I had, there’s a pride and a wealth of knowledge that builds up. Pride in your ship. As a crew you learn these little tricks of the trade: how the water supply, sewage systems, engines work. Now all that knowledge is gone.
I’m worried we’ll be dealing with this for years. Competitors are going to be fighting against this low-cost model. As soon as one company goes for fully cheap agency labour, the others will have to follow. How could you do this to a person? How can anyone plan their life when they’re living each two-week contract at a time? We’re becoming a society of those with job security and those without.
I go through waves of anger. I wish I could rewind the clock. Sitting on land, the feeling is just disbelief. I’ve written a CV for the first time in years. My ship and cabin are still sitting there, but now they’re occupied by an agency worker. It’s so painful to be cast off in this way.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism