P&O Ferries defends sacking of 800 staff as aligning company 'with standard industry practice'

P&O has come in for widespread criticism after it sacked 800 of its workers. Credit: PA

ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills reports on the extraordinary scenes on Britain's ferries in recent days

P&O Ferries has defended the sacking of 800 of its staff, saying the move will 'bring the company into line with standard industry practice'.

It acknowledged that the sackings came without warning or prior consultation, and said it 'fully understands' the distress this has caused to workers and their families.

A spokesperson said: “We have offered enhanced severance terms to those affected to properly and promptly compensate them for the lack of warning and consultation.

"The changes we've made bring us into line with standard industry practice.

"All affected crew who were working yesterday were notified face-to-face and in-person on board their vessels."

The company also stressed that 'contrary to rumours' none of its people wore balaclavas or were directed to use handcuffs.

However, ITV News obtained footage which showed security staff wearing balaclavas as they escorted P&O staff off of a vessel in Northern Ireland.

Unions have called for a boycott of P&O amid growing anger over the 'scandalous' sacking of 800 workers.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said there should be a widespread public and commercial boycott of the ferry giant until the jobs are reinstated.

A YouGov poll has shown that 83% of Brits say their decision, to make staff redundant en masse and immediately replace them with outsourced lower paid workers, should be illegal.

The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) and Fire Brigades Union (FBU) joined the criticism of P&O over the way it fired seafarers on Thursday.

The RMT called on the government to demand P&O reverse its decision and hold negotiations with the unions so that jobs and services can be reinstated.

New laws are also needed to protect the long-term future of workers in the UK maritime industry, said the RMT.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said P&O Ferries had only let a 'very small group' of officials know about the decision on Wednesday evening, meaning it was 'far too late' for the Government to intervene.

In a letter addressed to the former P&O Ferries chairman Robert Woods, he said: “Following the Maritime Minister’s call with your company yesterday, I am writing to express my anger and disappointment about the action that P&O took yesterday to make 800 seafarers redundant without notice and without consultation.

“The lack of engagement, of prior notice, or of any empathy whatsoever for your workers that P&O demonstrated yesterday was completely unacceptable."

P&O Ferries has 'lost the trust of the public and has given business a bad name', Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said in a letter to the company’s chairman.

The letter, also signed by business minister Paul Scully, said the way staff have been treated “has been appalling”.

“It is particularly depressing that this should happen given the millions of pounds of British taxpayer support P&O companies received from the furlough scheme,” it added.

“It cannot be right that the company feels tied closely enough to the UK to receive significant amounts of taxpayer money but does not appear willing to abide by the rules that we have put in place to protect British workers.

“At the very least, P&O should have given the Government the courtesy of sufficient notice so we and our agencies could have worked with you to protect workers and support those in finding alternative employment.”

Both MPs have since deleted their tweets when it came to light that Robert Woods was no longer chairman of P&O Ferries.

Downing Street has warned P&O Ferries that there could be “ramifications” over its decision to sack some 800 seafarers.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Government was looking to see if the company’s actions broke the relevant rules.

“We are looking very closely at the actions that this company has taken to see whether they acted within the rules,” the spokesman said.

“Once we have concluded that, we will decide what the ramifications are. Obviously there are a lot of valid questions in relation to existing contracts, etc.

“We are working through exactly the detail of what action the company took. Once we have have come to that conclusion, we will set out any further steps.”

A senior government minister has admitted, however, they are powerless to stop P&O sacking 800 workers without notice and replacing them with agency workers.

Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said the company had behaved “disgracefully” but acknowledged the government was unable to stop it.

  • ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills reports on the decision to sack 800 workers

“I think that is the reality,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“The government anger will mean very little to those who have been sacked. I do feel very sorry for those people.

“I do think P&O have behaved disgracefully and I wish that P&O had given the government and the unions more opportunity to engage with them to try to save those jobs.

“Ultimately, it is not something the government can stop P&O from doing. Now the focus will be on supporting those who have lost their jobs.”

  • Labour's Jim McMahon has condemned P&O Ferries owners DP World.

"The Dubai company that owns P&O made £1 billion profit - at the same time they're making 800 workers redundant.

"It's an absolute scandal, it's an outrage and it cannot be allowed to stand."

It is thought that P&O ferries will halve its crewing costs by using agency workers.

In a letter obtained by Mirror Online, Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite explained: “The changes we’re making to our crewing model today (will) reduce our crewing costs by 50%.”

He wrote that the firm was “severing the contracts of all 800 Jersey-contracted seafaring colleagues with immediate effect”.

He added: “We have entered into a new partnership with International Ferry Management (IFM) who are an international crewing company, and they will be responsible for providing new crews for all those ships affected by this change.

“Our new teams of seafaring colleagues have already joined our ships."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said the move to sack 800 workers is 'inhumane and unethical'.

In a joint statement with the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, he said:

"Ill-treating workers is not just business. In God's eyes it is a sin.

"P&O has sacked 800 people in Dover, a town dependent on shipping. Dover is a major part of the Diocese of Canterbury which we serve as Bishops.

"The extraordinary move is at the command of DP World, the Dubai based and owned parent company, which made record profits last year. The move is cynically timed for a moment when world attention is on Ukraine. Done without warning or consultation it is inhumane, treats human beings as a commodity of no basic value or dignity and is completely unethical.

"We call on Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, to prevent P&O operating until proper consultation has been carried out. Consultation will have to be done with independent oversight as all confidence in P&O management is gone. We call on the UK Government to make urgent and forceful representations to the Government of Dubai, a historic and close ally of the UK.

"It is essential that if this move cannot be prevented legally that Dover receive extraordinary financial and development assistance."

The Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, tells ITV News that P&O's actions towards its workers are 'inhumane'.

Services remain suspended on Friday and a series of demonstrations were expected to take place against P&O’s “appalling” decision.

Unions and politicians condemned the mass dismissal, blamed by the company on losses of £100 million following the slump in travel because of the pandemic.

The firm said early on Friday it would not be able to operate services “for the next few days” from Dover to Calais, Hull to Rotterdam, Liverpool to Dublin, and Cairnryan, Scotland, to Larne, Northern Ireland.

It advised those already at Dover and Calais to make their way to the check-in booths for Danish firm DFDS, but there were no such instructions for those at Hull, Rotterdam, Liverpool, Dublin, Cairnryan or Larne.

Trade union Nautilus International, which represents some of those fired, urged the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to “make sure the ships are safe” as the new crews are “unfamiliar” with the vessels and routes.

General secretary Mark Dickinson said it was “an intensely worrying situation” as sailing ships across the Channel is “like walking across a six-lane motorway at rush hour”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are serious safety concerns, which is why the company cannot reintroduce services with the lower-paid agency crew that they’ve recruited via this company called International Ferry Management of Malta.”

In relation to the decision by P&O Ferries to use agency crews, a spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “We take safety of all shipping very seriously.

“Our surveyors will be carrying out full inspections of all eight P&O Ferries before they return to service to make sure they comply with international regulations on manning and operation, including emergency procedures such as firefighting and evacuating the ship.”

A video of the Teams call that was played to P&O employees on Thursday informing them they were being made redundant, effective immediately.

Credit: RMT Union

The Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East called on the government to force P&O to “come up with a different plan”.

Karl Turner told the BBC: “What I say to the government is you’ve got to get P&O into a position where they’re prepared to negotiate with the trade union members.

“And they’ve got to come up with a different plan. They can’t just summarily dismiss people without any consultation or notice. It’s 800 jobs across the country.”

Earlier, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) said it was seeking legal advice to challenge the sackings.

It said the UK has seen one of the most “vicious examples of despotic employer behaviour” and one of the most shameful episodes in its recent industrial history.

Announcing the decision on Thursday, the ferry operator, bought by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World in 2019, insisted the decision to cut jobs was “very difficult but necessary” as it was “not a viable business” in its current state.

The 800 workers were sacked immediately, with no notice, so they can be replaced by cheaper labour.

Security guards boarded ships with handcuffs to remove fired crew, it was alleged.

The union called for mass trade union and wider public support for demonstrations in Dover, Liverpool and Hull on Friday.

In a message to RMT members, general secretary Mick Lynch said: “It was with deep shock that I learned the news of the wholesale job cuts taking place at P&O Ferries, but I am sure that my shock was nothing as compared to the devastation this news brought to you and your colleagues.”

He added: “This appalling situation has arisen as a result of DP World wishing to maximise their profits and the failure of the government to intervene and protect the jobs of you and your colleagues.”

Conservative MP Huw Merriman, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said P&O had shown “contempt” for its staff.

Rail minister Huw Merriman said the Tory Government was ‘not driven by dogma’ Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

“If they do not reverse immediately and reinstate the employees and follow proper process, it’s hard to see a way back for them commercially,” he said.

“The parent DP World needs to understand that the British public will not do business with companies who treat their employees with such contempt.”

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: “This is not a corporate restructure. It’s not the way we go about business in this country.

“It is beneath contempt; the action of thugs.”

P&O Ferries said in a statement: “We have made a £100 million 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.”