P&O Ferries sacks all 800 crew members across entire fleet

The leading UK ferry operator P&O Ferries has sacked 800 British crew across its entire fleet after stopping all its sailings on Thursday.

Unions called on government to halt what it called a “scandalous betrayal”, with aid P&O planning to use cheap agency staff to operate its ships.

The operator, owned by the Dubai-based DP World, earlier told crew to return to port and await a “major announcement” in a sudden move likely to cause serious disruption to travel for passengers and freight.

Security staff were set to clear crew off ships in Dover and Larne, Belfast, after unions instructed crew not to leave vessels. Coaches carrying replacement agency crew – brought in from Colombia, according to reports in the French press – were reported to be standing by at Dover and Hull.

RMT members outside the Port of Dover as P&O Ferries suspended sailings and handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices.
RMT members outside the Port of Dover as P&O Ferries suspended sailings and handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The RMT said that guards with handcuffs were seeking to board ships to remove crew so they could be replaced with cheaper labour.

The union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, said it was seeking urgent legal action over “one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations”.

He added: “We have instructed our members to remain on board and are demanding our members across P&O’s UK operations are protected, and that the secretary of state intervenes to save UK seafarers from the dole queue.”

Staff were told by video message that P&O “vessels will be primarily crewed by a third party crew provider … Your final day of employment is today.”

Ferry services are now understood to be unlikely to resume for several days.

DP World, one of largest port operators globally, is owned by Dubai’s sovereign wealth fund, and chaired by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, who also heads Dubai’s customs authority. The group owns London Gateway port – the centrepiece of the first of the controversial freeports championed by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, and established by the government last year.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said it had to take a “very difficult but necessary decision” to “secure the future viability of our business, which employs an additional 2,200 people, and supports billions in trade in and out of the UK”.

They added: “However, in its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have made a £100m loss year-on-year, which has been covered by our parent DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now.”

P&O had earlier told staff – in a note posted on social media by Hull’s Labour MP, Karl Turner – that it would “be making a major announcement today”, adding: “To facilitate this announcement all our vessels have been asked to discharge their passengers and cargo and stand by for further instructions. This means we’re expecting all our ports to experience serious disruption today.”

Turner said the sackings were “utterly deplorable predatory practice taking full advantage of the gap in the legislation”.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, called on the government to act, saying: “Unscrupulous employers cannot be given free rein to sack their workforce in secure jobs and replace with agency staff. The Conservative government must not give the green light to this appalling practice, and must act to secure the livelihoods of these workers.”

The transport select committee chair, the Conservative Huw Merriman, joined calls for government action, saying: “The government must do everything it can to ensure that this appalling employment transaction cannot be completed.”

P&O is the leading ferry operator on the Dover-Calais crossing, the main sea link from Britain and Europe, and also sails from Hull to Rotterdam, Liverpool to Dublin and Cairnryan in Scotland to Larne.

Unions demanded assurances and government intervention to protect British jobs.

The maritime union Nautilus International said the news was “a betrayal of British workers”. Its general secretary, Mark Dickinson, said: “It is nothing short of scandalous, given that this Dubai-owned company received British taxpayer’s money during the pandemic.

“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 have instructed our members to stay onboard until further notice.”

The head of the European seafarers’ union ETF, Livia Spera, said it was “astonishing that this can happen in major developed country like the UK”.

P&O Ferries has nearly 4,000 employees, and said in May 2020 that it may have to make 1,100 redundant because of the coronavirus outbreak. It was given £33m in emergency funding by the government to ensure freight kept sailing.

A P&O representative earlier told the Independent that it was not facing liquidation.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, asked by Labour in the Commons, said he was “concerned” by the news. He told MPs he was working with the Kent Resilience Forum to manage disruption from the cross-Channel closure, adding: “We will be taking steps later today, including ensuring officials are having urgent discussion with P&O about the situation, particularly concerning their workers.”

P&O apologised to customers on Twitter, saying: “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.”

Cross-Channel ferry passengers and truck drivers were expected to be diverted to DFDS or Eurotunnel services. Passengers on Irish Sea crossings have been sent to Stena Line.

Some customers were left stranded this morning. A driver in Calais due to return to the UK told the PA news agency he had been waiting for a ferry since 6am, adding: “More than anything I’m frustrated at the fact nobody from P&O was there to help and advise. I’ve never had such shoddy service from anybody.”

DP World bought P&O Ferries for a second time in 2019, for £322m, after selling it earlier in the decade.

The business is believed to have been making escalating losses, with the rising cost of diesel adding to disruption from Covid and post-Brexit paperwork in cross-Channel traffic. DP World said it had never taken a dividend from P&O Ferries.

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