P&O Ferries is facing major backlash as a shock announcement that it was sacking 800 workers without notice has led to mass protests and possible legal action.
The UK government has warned the company of possible "ramifications" over its decision, with an enquiry as to whether P&O's actions broke the rules.
"We are looking very closely at the actions that this company has taken to see whether they acted within the rules,’ a Downing Street spokesperson said on Friday.
"Once we have concluded that, we will decide what the ramifications are. Obviously there are a lot of valid questions in relation to existing contracts. We are working through exactly the detail of what action the company took. Once we have have come to that conclusion, we will set out any further steps."
They added that ministers do not believe P&O explored all possible avenues to secure the future of the business before laying off staff.
P&O which said on Thursday that its business was no longer viable after making a £100m ($131m) loss year-on-year, has been met with outrage from trade unions representing crew members.
In a video meeting, P&O made hundreds of its crew members redundant with immediate effect on Thursday after stopping all its sailings earlier in the day.
It said: “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.”
Both passenger and freight shipping routes could now experience at least a week of disruption on the back of the news.
As one of the UK’s leading ferry firms, P&O carried more than 10 million passengers a year before the pandemic, and was responsible for around 15% of all freight cargo in and out of Britain.
P&O operates four routes: Dover to Calais; Hull to Rotterdam; Liverpool to Dublin; and Cairnryan, Scotland to Larne, Northern Ireland.
P&O Ferries services are unable to run for the next few days. We are advising our customers of alternative arrangements. We will update this feed every 3 hours with the operational situation
— P&O Ferries Updates (@POferriesupdate) March 18, 2022
Outspoken Tory backbencher Sir John Redwood took to social media to warn of the impact the P&O shutdown will have on imports.
"P&O treated their workforce so badly and are now failing to run services we need for imports. The government needs to help the employees. Not a good time to hike employment costs with a tax rise either," he said.
Northern Ireland economy minister Gordon Lyons also highlighted that more than half of the nation’s freight moves through Larne port, with the MLA adding the move “will also cause supply problems for companies and supermarkets in Northern Ireland, as well as those firms based here who sell to GB”.
The ferry operator, owned by the Dubai-based DP World, now plans to use cheap agency staff to operate its ships, and an agency to keep its ferries running.
It comes after the business, which has around 4,000 employees, said in May 2020 that it may have to make 1,100 redundancies due to the coronavirus outbreak and its effect on the travel sector.
Although P&O benefited from furlough support during the pandemic, as well as a freight support grant, it failed to secure a £150m bail out from the UK government.
James Heappey, armed forces minister, suggested the company should return the furlough money it received during the health crisis.
“It sounds like exactly the sort of thing that if I were the Treasury I would be asking for, but I don’t know exactly how these things work,” he said.”
“It certainly feels to me that it would be the right thing to do for P&O to hand that money back. I’m sure that colleagues at the Treasury and Department for Transport will be looking into it.”
News of the mass sackings has sparked protests across the country, with unions holding demonstrations in Dover, Hull and Liverpool on Friday.
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“We need to send a message to ruthless employers and the government alike, that when working people are treated so abysmally, there is a militant response from the trade union movement,” RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said.
“This example of gangster capitalism to which our members in P&O have been subjected, is what lies ahead for other workers up and down the country if we do not all take a stand.”
Meanwhile, Mark Dickinson, the general secretary of seafarers union Nautilus International, told Radio 4’s Today Programme that it was “a dark day in the shipping industry”.
“I’ve been in this game for over 40 years and I’ve seen some curveballs and some shocking developments over those times, but this is a new low,” he said.
“This is a new low for a shipping company to treat the due legal process in such an underhand and callous way that has shocked me, taken my breath away.”
VIDEO 📹: We have obtained further footage of private security personnel trying to force P&O workers off their vessels yesterday after they had their employment terminated by zoom with no notice.
This is how P&O treats loyal & dedicated staff.#SackedandAttacked #PandOBetrayal pic.twitter.com/nd0oy3TtmX
— Nautilus International (@nautilusint) March 18, 2022
The UK government is now facing calls to intervene, with questions circling as to whether they heard the news beforehand or not.
"No one should be laid off with zero notice and no consultation, let alone a whole workforce. P&O’s secret plan to sack their workers is reprehensible and unlawful," TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said.
“When an employer lays off more than 100 staff at once they must consult workers and unions in advance. And they are required to notify the secretary of state in writing in advance too. The government must urgently explain what they knew and when.
“If P&O breached the law they must suffer severe consequences — with ministers increasing the legal penalties if necessary. If one employer gets away with this, every worker is at risk.”