British ferry operator P&O fires 800 workers without notice

Private security officers reportedly try to board ferries with handcuffs as workers, backed by Nautilus International and RMT, refused to disembark

March 17, 2022 by Morning Star
Former P&O staff and RMT members block the road leading to the Port of Dover as P&O Ferries suspended sailings and handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices, saying: ‘Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes’. Photo: Morning Star

Unions across the UK have slammed “one of the most shameful acts” in British industrial history today as P&O ferries were reportedly evicting staff from vessels in handcuffs after 800 workers were fired without notice.

The unions representing P&O workers, Nautilus International and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), had instructed their shocked members to remain on board and said many refused to leave their ships in protest after they appeared to have been told about the sudden redundancies on a video call. According to RMT, the company seeks to replace the staff with cheaper agency workers from overseas.

The union confirmed it had received reports of private security officers at Dover seeking to board ships with handcuffs to remove crew. Security had also been sent onto one ship docked at Larne Harbour in Northern Ireland to evict staff, RMT said.

East Hull Labour MP Karl Turner said “new foreign crew [are] waiting to board” the Pride of Hull vessel, but the current crew onboard have begun a “sit-in.”

RMT National Secretary Darren Procter said staff were given no warning of the announcement. He told the BBC: “We were informed that there were coaches full of individuals looking to replace the staff with no consultation with the staff or unions…We’ve seen minibuses full of workers and security staff who have had handcuff training.

“This is how they plan to treat staff who show resistance,” Procter added.

The union’s General Secretary Mick Lynch said: “We are seeking urgent legal action and are again calling for the government to take action to stop what is fast turning into one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations.”

“If this happens at P&O it can happen anywhere,” Lynch stated “and we are calling for mass trade union and wider public mobilization and protest against the company.”

The union’s spokesman Geoff Martin added: “We are digging in for the long haul. We are determined to fight.”

RMT has called emergency demonstrations in Dover’s Maritime House and Hull’s King George Dock at midday tomorrow, and at the main Liverpool port entrance at 1pm.

The TSSA transport union, which said the firm had become the latest to use fire-and-rehire tactics to attack workers, said it would resist the “disgraceful behavior tooth and nail.”

General Secretary Manuel Cortes expressed his solidarity to the affected employees, saying: “In any civilized country these actions would not only be unlawful but punishable in the harshest possible terms.”

He added, “Sadly, I doubt the Tory government will lift even their little finger to ensure this happens.”

Labour blasted the “scandalous action,” with MP Barry Gardiner saying the treatment of workers as “nothing more than a digit on a balance sheet is becoming normalized by greedy businesses who are emboldened by governments.”

The MP for Brent North, whose private member’s Bill against fire and rehire was voted down by Tory MPs last autumn, said ministers are only “encouraging” companies not to use the tactic.

“Guidelines and encouragement are not enough,” he said. “The only appropriate action would be legislation to stop this pernicious practice once and for all.”

Condemning the “reprehensible and unlawful” move, the General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Frances O’Grady said: “When an employer lays off more than 100 staff at once they must consult workers and unions…they are required to notify the Secretary of State in writing in advance too. The government must urgently explain what it knew and when.

“If P&O breached the law it must suffer severe consequences —with ministers increasing the legal penalties if necessary,” O’Grady added.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that he would speak to the company, which employs almost 4,000 people, about the “concerning” news.

The firm has cancelled all services over the next few days and claimed its survival was dependent on “making swift and significant changes” after pandemic-related losses. Passengers affected by today’s sudden act were redirected to other ferries or told to cancel travel plans.

P&O was purchased by Dubai-based DP World in a £322 million deal in 2019. It fired over 1,000 staff early the next year.

This article was first published on Morning Star.