P&O – Where to sail from here?
It seems from widespread press reports recently that P&O have dismissed 800 employees without warning by way of a pre-recorded video presentation, and that many of the positions concerned will be replaced by agency workers, presumably on lower levels of pay and benefits. It is unclear how many of the dismissed staff will be offered new jobs if they sign up with the agencies, and the amount of compensation being offered to the dismissed employees is also unknown. What is clear is that P&O have stated that this is an emergency situation and that the steps they have taken are regrettable but necessary.
So here we are seeing a dilemma that in fact employers across the country need to wrestle with on a constant basis ; the question of balancing the need for urgent action and cost savings against workforce morale and market reputation. This is a significant balance for all employers, but it is not often that it leads to the levels of publicity P&O have experienced since their announcement.
It must be said that we don’t yet really know enough about the background facts here. The detail will be important and it is not right to make assumptions until more is known. At first sight however the situation clearly looks unusual. In cases where large scale redundancies or a forced change in levels of pay and benefits are proposed by employers, they will usually be followed by significant periods of consultation in line with statutory collective consultation duties, and usually this is particularly the case in a unionised environment. It seems that the recent government review of the practice of ‘Fire and Re-hire’ will not at present lead to a ban on that practice, which is often used at the end of a consultation process if an employer is looking to change terms to pay employees less driven by economic necessity, but consultation is usually an essential part of a fair procedure in such circumstances.
There are a number of ways in which a genuine emergency in a business can be used to justify periods of consultation being cut down. Again here the facts behind the P&O situation will be important. However rights to notice pay and redundancy payments, as well as in many cases damages for Unfair Dismissal form part of a package of fundamental rights for staff which are very difficult to remove.
All of this brings us back full circle to the balancing act employers need to wrestle with constantly. Just at the moment there is no doubt that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide events has created a workforce who, for the most part, view their working lives and rights, and their personal lives, differently than in previous years, and this has spread to the public perception of the workplace. It has been reported that some of the agency workers lined up to take over from the dismissed P&O employees have now refused to take up those positions in the circumstances and because of the public reaction. Ultimately factoring in to any balancing act in the workplace that the staff involved are human beings is essential, but is all too easy to miss.