With no notice, UK-based P&O Ferries laid off 800 people, many over a Zoom call. The abrupt terminations caused widespread service cancellations and drew immediate backlash from government officials and unions over its plan to cut ferry service and replace staff with cheaper labor. P&O Ferries, which is owned by DP World, a shipping company based in Dubai, said on its website that there would be significant disruption to its services as it became “a more competitive and efficient operator.”
Workers and many others attended protests in the English port cities of Hull, Dover, and Liverpool and the Northern Irish port of Larne. The service disruption was likely to delay transportation of food, medicine, and other goods between Britain and the rest of Europe, union officials said.
In a company-wide email, Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O’s CEO, said that the company was reducing its crewing costs by 50 percent to set up the business for growth. He said that P&O Ferries had entered a new partnership with an international crewing company, and that new crew members from that company would staff affected ships.
In a statement last week, P&O acknowledged that “for our staff, this redundancy came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families.” The decision was “a last resort,” the company said, adding that the business would not survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements.
Politicians expressed outrage about the firings and came under pressure to withdraw government contracts with the firm.
“The news that P&O Ferries is sacking the crew across the entire UK fleet is a betrayal of British workers. It is nothing short of scandalous given than this Dubai owned company received millions of pounds of British taxpayer’s money during the pandemic,” said Mark Dickinson, General Secretary of Nautilus International.
“Reports of workers being given zero notice and escorted off their ships with immediate effect, while being told cheaper alternatives would take up their roles, shows the insensitive way in which P&O has approached this issue—a point I made crystal clear to P&O’s management when I spoke to them earlier this afternoon,” said Robert Courts, the undersecretary of state at the Department for Transport.
Geoff Martin, a spokesperson for the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, said that planned protests and union efforts to get the workers rehired would continue next week.
“It’s much of the modern management technique—to just treat the work force like scum on the expectation that you can get away with it,” he said. “And that’s what happened.”