Prime Minister Boris Johnson says appears P&O 'broke law' with sackings as company says sorry

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it appears P&O Ferries "broke the law" when it sacked 800 of its workers.

He told MPs the government will be “taking action” and encouraging workers to do the same.

It comes as the chief executive apologised for its treatment of staff on Wednesday.

Around 800 staff had their contracts terminated with immediate effect on Thursday.

Unions say the workers are being replaced by cheaper agency staff, with RMT claiming the new recruits are being paid just £1.81 per hour.

A P&O ferry remains moored in Dover Credit: PA

“We condemn the callous behaviour of P&O," the prime minister told the Commons.

"I think that it is no way to treat hardworking employees and we will not sit by because under Section 194 of the Trade Unions and Labour Relations Act of 1992 it looks to me as if the company has broken the law and we will be taking action.

"We will also be encouraging employees to take action under the 1996 Employment Rights Act.

“And if the company is found guilty then they face fines running into millions of pounds and in addition we will be taking steps to protect all mariners that are working in UK waters and ensuring they are paid the living wage."

The PM spoke just after P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite apologised to their former employees.

“I want to say sorry to the people affected and their families for the impact it’s had on them, and also to the 2,200 people who still work for P&O and will have been asked a lot of difficult questions about this.

“Over the last week, I’ve been speaking face-to-face to seafarers and their partners. They’ve lost their jobs and there is anger and shock and I completely understand.

Sacked staff on the P&O Pride of Hull staged a sit-in protest

“We needed fundamental change to make us viable. This was an incredibly difficult decision that we wrestled with but once we knew it was the only way to save the business, we had to act.

“All other routes led to the closure of P&O Ferries.

“I wish there was another way and I’m sorry.”

Mr Hebblethwaite will appear before a joint hearing of the Transport and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committees on Thursday.

Protesters outside Maritime House in Dover on Wednesday

Concerns were raised across the UK, as the company also operates routes from Dover, Tilbury, Hull and Teesport to France, and Liverpool to Dublin, as well as Larne to Cairnryan.

Workers protested the sackings in Dover and in Hull, where crews staged a sit-in on a ferry.

Protesters hit the streets again on Wednesday outside Maritime House in Dover, carrying banners with slogans calling to 'save our ferries.'

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said as the law stands, it is not illegal to pay seafarers below the national minimum wage even if they are working at UK ports and in UK waters, Sir Keir Starmer has said.

At Prime Minister's Questions, he told the Commons: "DP World must be quaking in their boots. The Prime Minister says how disappointed he is in them whilst handing them #50 million.

"The Prime Minister said about the law ... speaking of hollow reviews, as the law stands it is not illegal to pay seafarers below the national minimum wage even if they are working at UK ports and in UK waters.

"Two years ago, Prime Minister, his Government admitted that that was unjustifiable. Two years ago. And promised, two years ago, you have guessed it, to review it. Two years on, despite what he says today, nothing has been done leaving the gate wide open for P&O.

"British workers don't need another empty review, they need action. So when will the Prime Minister fix that gap in the law?"

Boris Johnson replied: "We are going to address the defects in the 1998 Living Wage Act... Minimum Wage Act and make sure that everybody serving in the UK exclusive economic zone, work in the UK exclusive economic zone gets paid the living wage as people do in the rest of the country."