P&O Ferries Faces New Union Protests as Labor Dispute Continues

union protests of P&O Ferries
P&O's European Causeway ferry had 31 issues during its MCA inspection leading to a 14-day detention (ITF)

Published Apr 20, 2022 5:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

A month after P&O Ferries fired 800 seafarers the company continues to face problems with several ferries still under detention and service on its busiest route remains suspended. Adding to the company’s troubles are renewed union demonstrations including a march on its parent company’s offices after an incident with union inspectors and reports that it fired seven replacement crewmembers for drinking while on duty.

The ferry operator between the UK, Ireland, and Europe has been able to resume at least some service on routes between Scotland, Northern Ireland, Hull in England, and Rotterdam, although they were unable to resume sailing between Dover and Calais, France in time for Easter week holiday passengers. Truckers and passengers seeking to cross the English Channel to France are still being advised to seek transportation with a competitor DFDS when they arrive at Dover. Despite competitors providing extra service on some of the routes, organizations such as the British Meat Processors Association and various trucking services are complaining of persistent long delays often reaching 10 to 30 hours at British ports.

Adding to the ferry company’s problems are new reports that seven of the agency crewmembers hired as replacements were found to be intoxicated when returning to their ship from shore. P&O confirmed to various media outlets that the individuals had been found to be drinking while on duty and were dismissed adding to the ongoing furor from the labor unions.

Two of the company’s ferries, Spirit of Britain and Pride of Kent, remain under detention after inspections by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The MCA declined to provide details on the causes for detention saying, “under Port State Control regulations, the reports will not be published until the inspection is complete – which is when the vessel is released.” 

The report for the two-week detention of a third vessel, the European Causeway, however, has now been published by the Paris MOU after the vessel was cleared by the MCA on April 8. It shows a total of 31 decencies, including seven that were the ground for detention. The MCA identified issues with fire safety including maintenance of fire dampers, fire doors, and placement of fire extinguishers, as well as deficiencies with the "launching arrangements for survival craft" and maintenance of an inflatable evacuation slide, insulation on steam pipes and pressure pipes, and winches and capstans. Most of the issues, and the ones that caused the detention, were related mostly to documentation, training, and familiarity of the crew with systems and procedures. 

A spokesman for P&O Ferries told the BBC that the inspections had faced an "unprecedented level of rigor," but said the company welcomed the additional scrutiny as the safety of passengers and crew was always its top concern.

Around 80 protestors, including French P&O and DFDS employees along with their unions, staged a protest in Calais on April 19 in solidarity with the UK unions. At the same time the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has continued to organize protests at British ports, and tomorrow, April 21, will march with the International Transport Federation on the London headquarters of the ferry company’s parent DP World. 

The new protests were spurred by an incident yesterday in which ITF inspectors were refused access at the Port of Dover. According to the union, they followed procedures and were at the port “to investigate welfare issues that had been raised by replacement crew members on board P&O Ferries’ vessels in the port.” 

The union contends that its inspectors said that port officials phoned P&O Ferries while the inspectors were present, awaiting a decision on their access. “The Port Police refused the inspectors access on the day, on the basis that they had no advance warning of the inspectors’ visit.”

The union contends that it has clearance and by nature and necessity conducts random inspections so that employers do not have the opportunity to remove information or correct situations in advance. The inspectors said it was the first time in 17 years that they had been denied access to investigate after receiving a complaint.

RMT activists will be keeping up their “Fair Ferries campaign” and calling for the reinstatement of all 800 sacked seafarers during the protest scheduled for Thursday afternoon in London. In addition, the unions are yet again calling for government involvement to investigate the denial of access as well as to address the broader issues resulting from the March firing of the crews.