P&O Ferries' mass firing of UK crew members infuriates unions

British unions protested Friday at British ports, asking for the government to step in and save jobs and protect trade routes. P&O Ferries fired 800 U.K. ferry crew members to be replaced with contract workers.

P&O Ferries' mass firing of UK crew members infuriates unions

P&O has cancelled all ferry crossings between Britain, continental Europe and the United Kingdom. This threatens to disrupt travel and goods movements across the English Channel as well as the North Sea for several days.

Although the British government was outraged at the mass firings, many of which were done via Zoom message, it suggested that it could not reverse them. After receiving millions of pounds in British government assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, P&O had to make staff cuts.

Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, said that he was shocked and dismayed at P&O’s "insensitive" and "brutal treatment of its employees."

Shapps stated that he was looking at "whether there are contracts the government might hold with P&O" and could use this to pressure the company.

Unions accused the Conservative government, accusing it of being too soft with big business. Gordon Martin, RMT Transport Union, accused the government to crying "crocodile Tory Tears" and claimed that weak British labor laws are allowing "bandit capitalism” to flourish.

Since long, unions have opposed "fire and reappoint" policies which allow companies to fire employees and then re-employ them at worse terms. According to British labor laws, such drastic action can only be taken after consultation with employees.

Max Blain, the spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, stated that while they don't believe it was true for P&O staff, they are investigating this thoroughly.

He stated that it was too early to say whether P&O had violated labor laws.

This company's sudden action could lead to more economic disruption. The company cancelled ferry crossings on routes connecting England to Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and France. This included the cross-Channel Dover–Calais route, which carries large amounts of U.K.-Europe freight and passengers.

Although the government stated that the suspension could last for up to 10 days, it insisted that there was no "major disruption" as other ferry companies continue to operate the routes.

Dubai-owned logistics company DP World owned the ferry operator. It acknowledged that its decision had caused distress to the employees, but stated it had concluded that the business would not survive without fundamentally changing the crewing arrangements.

P&O stated that it was forced to reduce costs because of the pandemic, which led to a loss of 100 million pounds ($132 million) last year.

According to Mirror Online, Peter Hebblethwaite, chief executive of P&O, stated that replacing U.K. union seafarers with employees from International Ferry Management would reduce P&O's labor cost by half.

P&O claimed it was not a heavy-handed company in removing crew members who refused to leave their vessels following Thursday's firing.

The company stated in a statement that "Contrary all rumors", none of its employees wore balaclavas and they were not instructed to use force or handcuffs.

A number of hundred ferry workers and union members protested Friday near the Dover Channel port. They carried banners saying, "Save our seafarers", and "Save Britain’s ferries." 200 others marched past the Pride of Hull berthed ferry and banged on the door of the ferry terminal building.

Andy Burnham, Manchester Mayor, suggested that the government nationalize P&O.

Burnham said to a crowd in Liverpool's northwest port that he would say this to the prime minister.

Opposition Labour Party demanded that the Conservative government cancel DP World's contracts, licenses, and claw back the 4.3 Million Pounds ($5.6 Million) it provided to the company as emergency funding during the pandemic.

RMT and Nautilus International, two unions representing P&O employees, stated that they were planning legal action against the company.

Nautilus General-Secretary Mark Dickinson stated that "this is clearly illegal." It's a sad day for the shipping industry.

Dubai World is the ultimate owner of P&O Ferries. This holding company claims it is dedicated to "generating value" for Dubai's shareholder, the government. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Said Al Maktoum is the company's chairman. He is a member of Dubai's royal family.

Dubai World also owns DP World, a global logistics company that also owns P&O Ferries. It operates ports, shipping terminals, and other facilities in more than 71,000 locations around the globe. The company was named the title sponsor for the European professional golf tour in November.

DP World reported on March 10 that net income increased 5.9% to $896m last year. After it acquired assets in Canada, the U.S. and South Korea, Ukraine as well as Angola, revenue soared 26% to $10.8 billion.