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Nick Spencer: P&O is a case of extreme maritime sin  

25 March 2022

Nick Spencer finds an underlying logic in the Bishops’ condemnation


Protesters demonstrate at the P&O ferry terminal in Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway, on Wednesday

Protesters demonstrate at the P&O ferry terminal in Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway, on Wednesday

EVERY now and then, a story comes along that is so preposterous that it manages to knock bombed-out maternity hospitals and the risk of nuclear Armageddon off the front page.

So it was last week, when P&O Ferries dismissed 800 workers by video message, without warning or ceremony, to replace them with cheaper agency staff.

I struggle to see how P&O’s move is legal, let alone moral, and I am clearly not alone. Indeed, as with the proposed European Super League last year (Comment, 7 May 2021), P&O’s decision managed the seemingly impossible feat of uniting pretty much everyone in condemnation.

Among those expressing their opposition were the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, within whose diocese many of the affected workers live. In a widely reported joint statement, the pair declared that “ill-treating workers is not just business. In God’s eyes it is sin.”

“Christians call something a sin” is not always headline material — or, at least, it isn’t when that something is personal, private, or sexual. But, when the condemnation is political, economic, or industrial, people notice. Could you really use words such as “sin” in this context, one BBC presenter asked. “Bishops condemn extra-marital sin” does not raise an eyebrow; “Bishops condemn extreme maritime sin” does.

Christians have long tried to counter this popular notion of sin — the personal, indulgent, cream-cakes-are-naughty-but-nice notion — by patiently explaining how sin is an elevation of “me” over “us”. But the Bishops’ statement hinted at another approach, when it explained how “treat[ing] human beings as a commodity of no basic value or dignity . . . is completely unethical.”

On the surface, this is obvious: dehumanising humans is wrong. The underlying logic is more profound, however.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously drew attention to the way in which there were different ways of knowing and living in the world: I-It and I-You. You can engage with things in the world as if they were, well, things: objects, “its”; valuable, perhaps, but ultimately manipulable. Or you can engage with them as persons, “yous”: conscious, endowed with an inner life, capable of moral reflection, aspiring to live well, sensitive to the transcendent, deeply and ultimately relational.

Mixing the two is perilous. If idolatry is, in one sense, the mistake of treating an “It” as if it were a “You”, sin is the same mistake, but in reverse: treating “Yous” as though they were “Its”, with no basic value or dignity.

This is a perennial peril for (especially big) business, which is always being tempted to reduce human “Yous” to working “Its”. P&O needs to maintain profitability — despite being owned by DP World, which made record profits last year. So it swept aside its staff, like so many discarded deck-chairs.

There will always be tension in this arena. After all, letting the metaphorical ship go down with all jobs on board is hardly treating workers with dignity. In this instance, however, the callousness of the sackings cannot be excused. It was a sin, in the truest sense of that much misunderstood word.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and hosts the Reading our Times podcast.

Paul Vallely is away.

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