Government 'made aware' of P&O's mass sacking on Wednesday but 'didn’t tell anyone'

P&O ferries has suspended sailings with queues building at Dover.
P&O ferries has suspended sailings with queues building at Dover. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

The head of the RMT Union has told LBC the Government was "made aware" of P&O's plans to sack their entire British workforce the day before the public announcement.

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Speaking on Tonight with Andrew Marr, Mick Lynch said government ministers were told about P&O’s plans yesterday but "didn’t tell anyone".

After speaking to Transport Minister Robert Courts, Mr Lynch claimed: "I’ve just been on a call with the shipping minister Robert Courts, told him that [what P&O has done is illegal].

"[Robert Courts] knew this last night by the way and didn't tell anyone.

"The Department for Transport knew this was happening," he said.

LBC has been told despite the comment made by Mr Lynch, Mr Courts was not aware of the mass sackings until Thursday.

Mr Courts early told MP's in the House of Commons that "the Government" had been informed of P&O's plans on Wednesday night.

A series of demonstrations will be held on Friday against P&O's "appalling" decision.

Unions and politicians condemned the move, blamed by the company on losses of £100 million following the slump in travel because of the pandemic.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) is seeking legal advice to challenge the sackings.

It said the UK has seen one of the most "vicious examples of despotic employer behaviour" and one of the most shameful episodes in its recent industrial history.

On Thursday security guards wearing balaclavas hauled British workers off P&O ships after the company announced it was sacking all its 800 seafarers to be replaced with foreign staff.

The shocking scenes at the ports have been slammed as a "betrayal of British workers" and "shameful" after the shipping company yanked its members off ferries with no notice.

P&O Ferries will instead use third-party agency staff to sail their ships, making all 800 staff redundant.

Fire-and-rehire have been used by companies for decades, but the controversy about it has become more intense following the coronavirus pandemic.

With many companies loosing business and money over the last two years, there has been an increase in the amount using fire-and-rehire to reduce the amount they spend on their workers.

Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain's largest trade union, Unite, has called it "a disease that is ripping through our workplaces".

Last year British Gas fired 500 workers who installed and repaired boilers and heating systems on April 1.

Employees of the energy firm who refused to sign new contracts which forced them to work longer hours and have weekend and bank holiday rates cut, were given two weeks to either change their minds or be fired.

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Speaking about the announcement on Thursday Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson said people in balaclavas are "taking British crew off these ships", describing P&O's actions as "shameful".

The MP for Kingston upon Hull North said: "Members in port constituencies, not least in northern England, will be shocked at the news being reported about DP World, who own P&O Ferries, suspending services this morning, sacking 800 British P&O workers immediately by pre-recorded video message, and them being replaced by agency staff.

"I understand from the RMT union that these agency staff, mainly from overseas, are in buses on the quayside with a security firm, hired by DP World, wearing balaclavas and taking British crew off these ships. This is shameful and it goes against all norms of fair and reasonable behaviour."

RMT Secretary General Mick Lynch told LBC's Tonight with Andrew Marr: "I don't think they're safe [the ferries] whatsoever.

"How can they be safe, a multi-thousand ton vessel, some of the most advanced machinery on the sea in some of the busiest waterways in the world, and you've got a crew that’s never even seen the vessels taking them over and putting them to sea?

"Whereas they’re putting people out of work who’ve worked on them for 30 and 40 years."

P&O said: "Safety is the utmost priority for P&O Ferries and our crewing management partners.

"They have recruited high-quality experienced seafarers, who will now familiarise themselves with the ships, going through all mandatory training requirements set out by our regulators.

"Safety is paramount in our new crewing management model, which is used by many of our competitors and has been proven to be the most successful model in this industry and the competitive baseline.

"We will not be reducing crewing numbers. We don't have a business if we don’t have a safe business."

Video has surfaced online of the moment staff were informed they were losing their jobs with immediate effect.

While pictures appear to show staff refusing to leave the ships in protest.

Karl Turner, Labour MP for East Hull, shared a picture of the captain of The Pride of Hull addressing workers on the ship.

"They have support right across the city of Hull & the rest of the country and are determined to stay on board for as long as it takes. They should have the full backing of every working person in the UK."

P&O, owned by DP World, said the business is "not viable" in its current state after making a £100m loss year on year, leading to the "difficult" decision.

"This is not sustainable," P&O said in a statement.

"Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.

"These circumstances have resulted in a very difficult but necessary decision, which was only taken after seriously considering all the available options. As part of the process we are starting today, we are providing 800 seafarers with immediate severance notices and will be compensating them for this lack of advance notice with enhanced compensation packages."

DP World is majority-owned by Dubai Sovereign Wealth Fund. The news comes the day after Boris Johnson met UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of maritime union Nautilus International, said the shock redundancies are a "betrayal of British workers".

"It is nothing short of scandalous given that this Dubai owned company received millions of pounds of British taxpayer’s money during the pandemic," he said.

"There was no consultation and no notice given by P&O. Be assured the full resources of Nautilus International stand ready to act in defence of our members. We believe it is in our members’ best interests to stay onboard until further notice."

Louise Haigh MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, also described the move as "scandalous".

She said it is a "betrayal of the workers that kept this country stocked throughout the pandemic" and the Conservative government must "must act to secure the livelihoods of these workers".

The shock move comes after P&O halted all sailing on Thursday, causing travel chaos for customers stranded at ports.

Workers carrying luggage board the P&O Ferry Spirit of Britain at the Port of Dover in Kent as the company has suspended sailings ahead of a "major announcement" but insisted it is "not going into liquidation".
Workers carrying luggage board the P&O Ferry Spirit of Britain at the Port of Dover in Kent as the company has suspended sailings ahead of a "major announcement" but insisted it is "not going into liquidation". Picture: Alamy

The company initially posted on Twitter: "Regretfully, P&O Ferries services are unable to run for the next few hours.

"Our port teams will guide you and travel will be arranged via an alternative operator.

"We apologise for the inconvenience this will have on your journey plans."

P&O Ferries denied the company was going into liquidation.

The RMT union said it had instructed crew to stay on board the ferries in protest.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he was "very concerned" about the news from P&O Ferries and will be seeking to speak to them today to understand the impact on workers and passengers.

"Important to note other operators continue to run cross Channel routes, so passengers and goods can flow, but I am working with the Kent Resilience Forum to minimise disruption," he said in a Tweet.

The move has caused travel chaos for customers relying on the service for their journeys, with P&O still asking people to arrive at the port for the times they had booked.

St Patrick's Day celebrations have been thrown into turmoil too, with P&O being the only ferry operator between Dublin and Liverpool.

Live updates from the firm suggest it will arrange alternative carriers as quickly as possible for those hoping to continue with their trips.

The company has confirmed its services will not be able to run for the next few days. Customers are urged to arrive as booked and P&O will get them on an alternative carrier.

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P&O Ferries, which transports passengers and freight, is owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World.

It operates these four routes: Dover to Calais; Hull to Rotterdam; Liverpool to Dublin; and Cairnryan, Scotland to Larne, Northern Ireland.

Sailings between Hull and Zeebrugge, Belgium, were axed in January 2021.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, P&O Ferries warned in May 2020 that around 1,100 workers could lose their jobs as part of a plan to make the business "viable and sustainable".

The company that would become P&O was founded in 1837 after signing a government contract to transport post by boat between London and the Iberian Peninsula.

This story is being updated