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175th anniversary

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On a grey and windy Tuesday - in what should be a sunny July in Britain - the shipping company P&O celebrated its 175th anniversary in Southampton. Not welcome at the party were 150 Indian workers who had complained about their meagre earnings. According to the Guardian newspaper, some were on as low as 75 pence (Rs 65) an hour, well below the UK minimum wage of £6. 20 (Rs 530).

They were being denied tips which are paid electronically when passengers disembark, which are pegged to performance targets. On the most demanding tier, a worker with a 96 per cent rating, judged by customer-feedback forms, is in line for a bonus of around £100 on his monthly earnings of £250 (Rs 21, 000).

In May last year, on a 72-day cruise to Alaska from Southampton via the Panama Canal, 150 low-paid waiters on board the ship Arcadia stepped on to the dockside at Seattle for a wellmannered walkout that lasted 90 minutes. They were incensed that tips from passengers who had disembarked on the San Francisco leg of the trip had not materialised. Carnival, the company which owns P&O as well as Costa Cruises, whose ship the Concordia crashed off the coast of Italy in January killing 32 people, was not impressed. While the captain of Arcadia had assured the crew that they would not be reprimanded for inconveniencing passengers, who had to make alternative dinner plans, they received letters just before Christmas last year saying that having completed their contracts - of six or nine months - they would not be working for P&O again.

Nor would they any longer be in favour with Mumbai recruitment agency Fleet Maritime Services. In a letter, the Guardian reports, Fleet said: "We have been provided with details regarding the situation from Carnival UK advising that they do not wish to re-engage you on a ship" and "after careful consideration we agree".

Faced with a company whose payroll is in the UK tax haven of Guernsey while being registered in Bermuda, the workers are effectively stateless and have little recourse to law. Steve Todd of UK's RMT union, which represents British seafarers, told the Guardian: "Big, reputable cruise companies have got convoluted ways of getting past the employment legislation of countries they belong to. "

There is, however, no surprise in this. P&O is simply continuing a tradition of exploiting the services of what in its heyday were called "lascars" or "native" seafarers of largely Indian extraction. Fleet Maritime Services seems to fulfil the role of the serang - the boatswain on board and intermediary on land who the lascars of old were answerable to. P&O's ships certainly retain a whiff of the colonial: I was on one a couple of years ago and even the ship's doctor was from India.

On the issue of pay, David Dingle, chief executive of Carnival, told the Guardian: "Look at hotels in Goa. The earning ability is greater on our ships. We have a manning office in Mumbai. There are queues out on to the street. It clearly is of value to these people. "

The company was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1840 when it was tasked with extending its service beyond the Middle East to India - with a hefty Royal Mail contract effectively making it the Empire's postman.

In her recently published P&O: A History, Ruth Artmonsky quotes a veteran traveller in 1913 who writes: "Every British and Imperialist is proud of The Peninsular and Oriental Navigation Company. We feel it is part of the British Constitution. "

Artmonsky adds: "P&O needed the mail contracts and it needed the Empire, for as long as the Empire thrived there would always be mail and passengers to transport to and from it. "

Timed to coincide with the company's birthday, however, her book doesn't mention P&O's history of exploiting lascar, "native", or "Asiatic" labour - and we shouldn't doubt that at 75 pence per hour, unheard of in Britain, that is precisely what P&O's Indian workforce is today. In the Victorian illustrations and engravings in Artmonsky's book, however, you can spot the lascars on board P&O ships - feeding coal into furnaces or, much like today's ultra-low-paid staff, in uniform in the background. Today's P&O workers, like their 'native', 'coolie' forbears, are rendered invisible by the displacing, transnational nature of the deal - a British employer that does not extend UK rights to its staff.

"Work permit issues could prevent Indian staff rising in the ranks but I am sure that we will employ some Indian officers in the future" : this was not the captain of the P&O vessel Hindostan in 1842 but David Dingle, chief executive of Carnival, who made this statement earlier this year.

Fleet Maritime Services's website boasts of its connections to P&O which, it says, has a "rich maritime history" and a "glorious tradition of employing Indian personnel" - who, it adds, will be expected to work more than 12 hours a day with "virtually no days off". Rich is certainly an accurate way of describing P&O's history (it gave us the word "posh" : "Port-side Out, Starboard-side Home" - where affluent passengers could avoid the glare of the sun). For the 150 Indian waiters shunted out of a job on the Arcadia, however, it is far from glorious.

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