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Treating workers with “casual distain”

P&O staff: more than just statistics. Ian Forsyth/Getty

When my grandfather died at sea, “boiled alive” when his ship’s engine blew up shortly after World War Two, his death was treated by the shipping company as a statistic, says Frank Cottrell-Boyce in The Observer. And that’s exactly “how P&O dealt with their employees last week”. In a pre-recorded video message, 800 of the ferry company’s staff were sacked with immediate effect. It is “a return to an age when workers were treated with casual disdain” – those 800 staff are being replaced by lower-paid Filipino crews who, like my grandfather, can be treated as statistics.

Despite the Tories’ obsession with free markets, the first step towards changing this mentality is having regulation that protects employees – not just from being fired, but from the dangers they often face. When the Liberal MP Samuel Plimsoll was campaigning for greater protections in the 1800s, one opponent was a shipowner who had already lost five ships, three with no survivors. But he thought it was “cheaper to price in the deaths of thousands of crew than to sail safely”. Nor was this problem limited to the seas. In the 1870s, it emerged that a train guard was being made to work 40-hour shifts – “the company had instructed the porter to nudge him awake whenever he dropped off”. Even today, too many politicians think regulation is “the enemy of the individual”. On the contrary, it’s “how we have established the importance of the human in the face of the machine. It’s how we care for each other.”