Outrage and no ferries after mass P&O sackings

P&O Ferries has sparked outrage after sacking 800 staff with plans to replace them with cheaper agency workers.

Staff were told in a video call that Thursday was their "final day of employment", but some refused to leave their ships in protest and were removed.

P&O said it was a "tough" decision but it would "not be a viable business" without the changes.

And the RMT union is threatening legal action against the ferry company, calling it one of the "most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations".

Further protests on Friday are being organised in Dover, Liverpool and Hull.

This morning, the company again said on Twitter it would not run services "for the next few days".

The BBC has seen details of a contract for handcuff-trained security professionals which began two days before they were deployed to Dover to remove staff from ferries.

TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said P&O's "secret plan" to sack staff with no notice was "reprehensible".

P&O passengers were told to use DFDS while services were suspended.

Crew on one ship docked at Larne Harbour in Northern Ireland had lifted the gangway after private security officers arrived to remove them.

The crew has now left the ship and Gary Jackson, a full time officer and RMT union member onboard the Pride of Hull, said they were "absolutely devastated".

"At 11am ratings and officers were informed there was going to be a pre-recorded Zoom meeting. After that two to three-minute call all the crew were made redundant," he said.

"I've seen grown men crying on there because they don't know where they're going to go from today."

James, who has worked for P&O Ferries in Dover for around four years, said he felt abandoned by the company after all he received "was a three minute pre-recorded message saying we are out of a job. Nothing else."

"It was a complete surprise. I would have understood if it was at the height of Covid, but now we're seeing the end of travel restrictions and the start of summer bookings. So this has come completely out of the blue," he said.

Mark Canet-Baldwin, from Hull, was one of the agency workers brought to Cairnryan to take over from the crew that were being sacked.

But after talking it through with his wife, he said: "I felt I can't do it. I felt sick to my stomach. And I walked off. Two others came with me. It's just wrong."

Workers are reported to have been escorted off their ships while being told that cheaper alternatives will take up their roles.

"The approach adopted by P&O is not unheard of, but it is exceptional to forego appropriate notice and consultation processes," said Nathan Donaldson, employment solicitor at Keystone Law.

He said a government review of firing and rehiring in November 2021 did not outlaw the practice but emphasised "that it should be a process of last resort".

Rustom Tata, chairman and head of the employment group at law firm DMH Stallard, said P&O's actions would affect the brand's reputation due to the "apparently wholly planned approach being taken to such a large proportion of its workforce ignoring some of the basic fundamentals of employee relations."

Ann Francke, chief executive of The Chartered Management Institute, said P&O had "got it very wrong".

"It's shocking and appalling. It's like management behaviour from another era," she said.

P&O said its survival was dependent on "making swift and significant changes now".

"We have made a £100m loss year on year, which has been covered by our parent DP World. This is not sustainable. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries."

The cross-Channel operator said on Twitter that sailings between Dover and Calais scheduled for Thursday will no longer run, and customers with tickets were instructed to sail with rival ferry company DFDS.

P&O Ferries is one of the UK's leading ferry companies, carrying more than 10 million passengers a year before the pandemic and about 15% of all freight cargo in and out of the UK.

However, like many transport operators it saw demand slump in the pandemic.

The firm claimed almost £15m in government grants in 2020, which included furlough payments for its employees.

In an oral statement to government yesterday, Robert Courts MP said: "We of course have long planned contingencies for this sort of situation, particularly around the Channel, and I do not expect the supply of critical goods and services to be impacted as a result of this decision by P&O, although queues on the way to Dover are more likely to occur at times.

"Modelling suggests that we have sufficient capacity to handle the temporary loss of these P&O ferries."

Turning to the issues of the seafarers themselves, Courts continued: "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 nature by which P&O approached this issue – a point I made clear when I spoke to the management at P&O earlier this afternoon.

"As a matter of urgency, I have asked my Department to liaise closely with counterparts in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that workers are being signposted to the most relevant support and I am intending to call the trade unions immediately after this statement to discuss the situation with them.

There can be no doubt that the pandemic has had a devasting impact on the finances of many travel companies including P&O. But while their finances is a matter for them and them alone to take, I would have expected far better for the workers involved."

The Department for Transport says neither the Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, nor Mr Courts, were unaware of what was happening with P&O until Thursday.

Sources: BBC News