British Government to Review P&O Ferries’ Contracts After Mass Firings
The wave of backlash has continued to grow against British ferry operator P&O Ferries after the company’s sudden move on Thursday docking all its ships and firing 800 crewmembers to be replaced by a Malta-based crewing agency. The unions are staging demonstrations at major ferry ports while the government is launching reviews after the transportation minister called the company’s actions “completely unacceptable.”
Midday on Thursday, the ferry company in a pre-recorded three-minute video informed 800 crewmembers on its fleet of ferries that it was their last day of employment and that they should immediately leave the ships. Calling the actions essential for the financial survival of the company, P&O Ferries offered severance packages, which they said would be enhanced under the circumstances provided employees quickly signed their termination agreements and followed the terms of the separation.
The company reportedly sent security guards to clear the ships while union organizers claimed there were busses of Filipino replacements waiting nearby to board the ships. While workers slowly left the ships, major ferry ports were reported to be in near chaos. There were reports of traffic tie-ups stretching for miles with some drivers telling the media they had been stuck for four hours or more and bewildered tourists were left to find alternate routes.
“The scenes that played out at the docks were one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations,” said Mike Lynch general secretary of the powerful National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. The union quickly sprung into action organizing protests at the ports of Dover, Liverpool, and Hull in Britain as well as the Northern Ireland port of Larne. Reports indicated that there were at least 150 protestors in Dover, the U.K.’s busiest ferry port, but that operations were slowly recovering and the long lines had cleared. The RMT union said it would also extend its protests to a political conference scheduled for Saturday.
Solid Turnout in Hull earlier today with strong support from @KarlTurnerMP and @Ed_Miliband. Stop the #PandOBetrayal after 800 maritime professionals were #SackedandAttacked pic.twitter.com/EvJnHarHSD— Martyn (@MartynGray) March 18, 2022
“We have been overwhelmed by the widespread public and political support for our campaign to protect our members' jobs and these vital services,” said Lynch. “There is still time to reverse this shameful decision and today we are presenting a plan of action which needs to be acted upon immediately and if necessary, the government should introduce enabling legislation to make it happen.”
As the pressure has continued to mount, Grant Shapps Secretary of State for Transportation announced that he had ordered the government to review all contracts both with P&O Ferries and its parent company DP World. He said that they were also investigating the legality of P&O Ferries’ actions while he had instructed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to inspect all the ferries and their crews before permitting them to return to service.
The RMT echoed many of the steps taken by the secretary while also calling on the government to demand that P&O Ferries reverse its actions and hold negotiations and if the company refused that the government “should use its powers to take over the P&O vessels.” Calling for a commercial boycott of the company, the union is also demanding that the government introduce new legislation to ensure similar actions could never happen again.
Other unions have taken similar stands, with Nautilus International saying it was independently investigating the legality of P&O Ferries’ firing and replacing crews. But the strongest calls came from The Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA). The union’s general secretary released a statement saying, “The government should nationalize these vital ferry routes which allow people and goods to get to and from our country - P&O must be hit where it hurts!”
P&O’s operations remained idle for a second day with reports saying it could take up to 10 days for the company to restore ferry operations on some of its routes. Acquired in 2019 by Dubai-based DP World, the company accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of the cross-channel ferry market to France according to the Financial Times. The company has had a contentious relationship with the unions starting with its move to re-register all its ferries in Cyprus. Despite receiving significant government financial support during the pandemic, management said it needed to take swift and significant actions to maintain the financial visibility of its operations.