P&O Ferries sacks 800 staff as part of 'necessary' cuts and replaces them with agency workers

ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills reports on the shocking mass redundancies by P&O Ferries

P&O Ferries has sacked 800 staff that work on its vessels with immediate effect, as the company fights for survival.

It said it lost £100million year on year, which has forced it to make 'swift and significant changes now'.

Staff will be replaced by agency workers, in a move that unions have called 'outrageous'. Seafarers were given immediate severance notices this morning, Thursday 17 March.

Ferry sailings have been suspended 'for the next few days' whilst the transition takes place.

WATCH: A video of the Teams call that was played to P&O employees on Thursday. Credit: RMT Union.

The company said it was left no choice but to make the 'very difficult but necessary decision'. All affected crew who worked today were notified face-to-face and in person on board vessels.

The company, which operates major routes from the UK to the continent, said earlier that no services would be able to run until an announcement was made.

In a statement, released on Thursday afternoon, it said: “P&O Ferries plays a critical role in keeping trade flowing, supply chains moving, and connecting families and friends across the North and Irish seas and the English Channel.

"We have been at the heart of this service for years and we are committed to serving these vital routes.

"However, in its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have made a £100m loss year on year, which has been covered by our parent DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.

"These circumstances have resulted in a very difficult but necessary decision, which was only taken after seriously considering all the available options. As part of the process we are starting today, we are providing 800 seafarers with immediate severance notices and will be compensating them for this lack of advance notice with enhanced compensation packages.

"In making this tough decision, we are securing the future viability of our business which employs an additional 2,200 people and supports billions in trade in and out of the UK. And we are ensuring that we can continue serving our customers in a way that they have demanded from us for many years.”

But for staff, this announcement is devastating, as many gathered in Dover this afternoon to protest the job cuts.

ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills reports from Dover

Khan Sprague, a former steward for P&O, said he has lost his "dream job" on the Spirit of Britain and that he "never saw this coming".

He had moved down to Dover for the role, like many others who worked for P&O. Originally from Lancashire, he fears he now may have no option but to move back.

Up until the moment he found out, Khan thought everything was okay and staff were gearing up for the "Easter rush".

He fears there isn't much work around Dover, or in the maritime industry in general.

Khan Sprague speaks to ITV Meridian from the Port of Dover.

Meanwhile, P&O Ferries is warning of major disruption to travel. Teams on the ground will be arranging travel by other operators, it said.

Passengers should still travel to the port 'as booked', where they will be put on a service that is running 'as quickly as possible'.

Concerns have been raised across the country, as the company operates routes from Dover, Tilbury, Hull and Teesport to France, as well as routes from Liverpool to Dublin and Cairnryan to Larne.

Queues have built on routes to the Port of Dover. Whilst motorists have voiced their frustration at 'confusion' at ports in Hull, Teesport and Liverpool.

In a now deleted tweet, P&O Ferries said it had asked for all ships to come 'alongside' in preparation for a company announcement.

A senior union source told ITV Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills that the decision by P&O Ferries to make staff redundant is 'totally unlawful'.

The source believes that P&O has already recruited and trained replacement staff on less generous pay and conditions and that the company hopes to restart operations on Tuesday.

Until then passengers will be turning-up for ferries they won’t be able to board.

P&O declined to comment on the allegations.

STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “This is a damning, outrageous move from P&O and we offer our full support to the RMT union and all their members.

“We cannot – and will not – permit hundreds of workers to be sacked on the spot to be replaced by cheaper labour whilst P&O scramble to remain viable.

“We need to see an urgent statement from both the UK Government and the Scottish Government on how they intend to halt this scandalous misuse of employer power.”

The RMT is calling for the Secretary of State to 'intervene' and protect seafarers.

It has instructed members to remain onboard and is demanding its members across P&O's UK operations are protected, and that the Secretary of State intervenes.

Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch said these job losses are a major 'outrage'.

"There are nearly 400 RMT members working on those vessels and there is probably another 50 or 60 around the country.

"This is a major job loss for Dover and the Kent area and it is an absolute outrage".

Mick Lynch says the move by P&O Ferries is a flagrant abuse of workers.

P&O's decision was condemned by those on both sides of the political spectrum today.

Opening a statement on the matter, transport minister Robert Courts told the Commons: “These are hardworking, dedicated staff who have given years in service to P&O. The way they have been treated today is wholly unacceptable and my thoughts are first and foremost with them.

“Reports of workers being given zero notice and escorted off their ships with immediate effect while being told cheaper alternatives would take up their roles shows the insensitive way in which P&O have approached this issue, a point I have made crystal clear to P&O’s management when I spoke to them earlier this afternoon.

“I am extremely concerned and frankly angry at the way workers have been treated by P&O.”

Mr Courts said the staff had been “signposted” to support from the Department of Work and Pensions.

Lorries queue for alternative sailings at Dover. Credit: PA

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Courts had raised the issue with the company’s chief executive.

“The way these workers were informed was completely unacceptable,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

“Clearly the way that this was communicated to staff was not right and we have made that clear.

“Our sympathies are with these hard-working employees affected during this challenging time who have given years of service to P&O.”

Downing Street said the Government was not given any advance notice by P&O of the company’s plans.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said officials were in “urgent” talks to find out what the company’s plans were.

“We weren’t given any notice to this. We are speaking to the company to understand what approach it is taking,” the spokesman said.

“We do not agree with the practice of fire and rehire and would be dismayed if this is the outcome they were seeking to achieve.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the treatment of workers was “disgusting”.

“It just makes my blood boil. It is a complete betrayal of the workforce. It’s just disgusting,” he told BBC Radio Humberside.

“This is a company that had furlough during the Covid crisis. It is absolutely disgusting what they are trying to do. They mustn’t be allowed to get away with it.

Karl Turner, the Labour MP for East Hull, called the suspension of services "troubling for crews and their families". P&O operates crucial freight routes from Zeebrugge and Europoort to the city.

The MP said that a foreign crew are waiting to board the Pride of Hull on King George Dock, but RMT union members are sat on board the vessel refusing them entry.

"They will not be boarding her", he said.

P&O has a fleet of more than 20 ships that sail across the Channel, North Sea and Irish Sea, according to its website.

Stormont Assembly members, whose constituency covers the port of Larne have raised concerns about the possible implications for the route it operates between Cairnryan and Northern Ireland.

East Antrim MLA John Stewart, who has relatives that work at the port, said staff were unsure as to what would be announced.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster he said "The information is being nothing more than drip-fed to them."

It is a 'worrying development' he said.

"For the staff, for Larne port itself, particularly for the local effect here, and also for businesses and passengers that regularly use that service, it's an invaluable local service over to Cairnryan.

"I think this news will be deeply worrying for all of them, especially in the absence of any concrete information as to what the long-term strategy is going to be."

Rival firm DFDS said the decision by P&O ferries is 'a concern' and poses a 'threat' to local jobs and communities.

A billboard 'Welcome To Larne' pictured in the port of Larne On Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Credit: PA

A spokesperson said: "This is of course a concern and poses a threat to local jobs and communities. However, DFDS remains committed to our people and our values of being a caring employer.

"We do not have any plans at this time to make changes to our current structure. Our brilliant teams are the backbone of our business, and we believe that the skills and competence of maritime professions in Europe must be maintained in the economic interest of the sector.

"Our focus right now is to ensure that our colleagues and teams onboard and ashore are able to continue to deliver great experiences to our freight customers and passengers during this time."

Meanwhile, motorists and HGV drivers hoping to sail between Dover and Calais are expected to be asked to use rival firms, such as DFDS seaways and the Channel Tunnel.

The Dover TAP system has been activated on the A20 at Aycliffe due to heavy freight volumes.

Queues have already been reported on the A2 and A20 as vehicles are waiting for alternative sailings.

The company that would become P&O was founded in 1837 after signing a government contract to transport post by boat between London and the Iberian Peninsula.