Britain’s main ferry operator, P&O Ferries, has sacked 800 British crew members across its fleet after halting all crossings on Thursday.
Unions have called on the government to end what it called an “outrageous betrayal” as P&O plans to use cheap agency staff to operate its ships.
The operator, owned by Dubai-based DP World, had previously asked crew to return to port and await a “major announcement” in a sudden move that could severely disrupt passenger and cargo movements.
Security staff were preparing to remove crew from ships in Dover and Larne, Belfast, after unions ordered crew not to leave the ships. Coaches carrying replacement agency staff were reportedly on standby at Dover and Hull.
The RMT said handcuffed guards were seeking to board ships to remove crew so they could be replaced with cheaper labour.
Union general secretary Mick Lynch said he was seeking urgent legal action over “one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations”. He added: “We have asked our members to stay on board and demand that our members through UK P&O operations be protected, and that the Secretary of State step in to save UK seafarers from queuing at the unemployment.”
Staff were told by video message that P&O “vessels will primarily be manned by a third party crewing provider…Your last day of employment is today”.
Transport Minister Robert Courts told MPs that passengers should expect disruption to ferry routes in the coming days, with P&O likely to suspend all services for 10 days.
DP World, one of the largest port operators in the world, is owned by the Dubai sovereign wealth fund and is chaired by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, which also heads Dubai Customs. The group owns the port of London Gateway – the centerpiece of the first of the controversial free ports championed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak and established by the government last year.
A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said it had to make a “very difficult but necessary decision” to “ensure the future viability of our business, which employs an additional 2,200 people and supports billions of dollars of trade to and from from the UK”.
They added: “However, in its current state P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have suffered a loss of £100m year-on-year which has been covered by our parent company DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival depends on rapid and significant change now.
P&O had previously told staff – in a memo posted on social media by Labor MP for Hull Karl Turner – that he would ‘make a major announcement today’, adding: ‘To facilitate this announcement, all of our ships have been asked to unload their passengers and cargo and await further instructions . This means that we expect all of our ports to experience severe disruption today.
Turner said the layoffs were “an utterly deplorable predatory practice taking full advantage of loopholes in the legislation.”
Shadow Transport Labor Secretary Louise Haigh called on the government to act, saying: ‘Unscrupulous employers cannot have the freedom to lay off their workforce in secure jobs and replace them with staff temp worker. The Conservative government must not give the green light to this appalling practice and must act to ensure the livelihood of these workers.
Transport select committee chairman, Tory Huw Merriman, joined the government’s calls for action, saying: ‘The government must do all it can to ensure that this appalling jobs transaction cannot be completed.”
P&O is the main ferry operator on the Dover-Calais crossing, the main sea link between Britain and Europe, and also sails from Hull to Rotterdam, Liverpool to Dublin and Cairnryan in Scotland to Larne.
Unions demanded assurances and government intervention to protect British jobs.
Maritime union Nautilus International said the news was “a betrayal of British workers”. Its company secretary, Mark Dickinson, said: “This is simply outrageous, given that this Dubai-owned company has received UK taxpayers’ money during the pandemic.
“There has been no consultation and no advice given by P&O. Rest assured that all Nautilus International resources are ready to act in the defense of our members. We have asked our members to remain on board until further notice. order.
The chair of European seafarers’ union ETF, Livia Spera, said it was “astonishing that this could happen in a large, developed country like the UK”.
P&O Ferries has received £33million in emergency government funding to ensure freight continues to sail during the pandemic.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, questioned by Labor in the Commons, said he was “concerned” by the news. He told MPs he was working with the Kent Resilience Forum to manage the disruption of the cross-Channel shutdown, adding: ‘We will take action later today, including ensuring officials have urgent discussions with P&O on the situation, in particular concerning their workers. ”
Cross-Channel ferry passengers and lorry drivers were to be diverted to DFDS or Eurotunnel services. Passengers on Irish Sea crossings were sent to Stena Line.
Many customers were left behind by the announcement. A driver from Calais who is due to return to the UK told the PA news agency he had been waiting for a ferry since 6am, adding: ‘More than anything I am frustrated that no one from P&O n was there to help and advise. I have never had such poor quality service from anyone.
DP World bought P&O Ferries for the second time in 2019, for £322million, after selling it earlier in the decade.
The company is believed to have suffered mounting losses, with the rising cost of diesel adding to disruption caused by Covid and post-Brexit red tape in cross-Channel traffic. DP World said it had never taken a dividend from P&O Ferries.