The Government has threatened to criminally prosecute and impose unlimited fines on P&O Ferries if the disgraced operator is found to have broken labour laws by dramatically sacking 800 seafarers in one fell swoop via a Zoom video call.
Business Minister Paul Scully told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: ‘If they have flouted the notification law where they are supposed to tell the Secretary of State when they are going to make more than a hundred people redundant, then there are criminal sanctions involved in that, including an unlimited fine.
‘We have reserved the right to approach the prosecuting authorities should that be the right thing to do.’
Mr Scully said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was reviewing all Government contracts and dealings with the company and its owners, DP World, adding: ‘They need to realise that the relationship between the companies and the Government has changed as a result of their absolutely callous [conduct]’.
Asked if that could include a £25million subsidy to DP World to help develop London Gateway as a freeport, he replied: ‘We will look into all of these things as part of this.’
Tory politicians are demanding that the Government consider scrapping its relationship with DP World, with Conservative peer Baroness Roz Altman telling the Today programme: ‘I think what P&O Ferries have done is absolutely disgraceful.
‘I feel so sorry for those 800 seamen who were loyal to P&O who were sacked by video, escorted of their ships, no warning, and I think that the Government should think very carefully about forcing the employer to behave better, and if that means that they have to impose any kind of sanctions or warnings to them, I think that would be entirely appropriate.’
P&O Ferries has replaced the 800 sacked staff with £1.82-an-hour foreign agency workers from India, the Phillipines and war-hit Ukraine.
The company has until 5pm today to respond to Mr Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s scathing letter over the mass redundancies. The Transport Secretary said he had instructed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to carry out inspections of all P&O Ferries vessels before they return to sea to check the new crews the company has ‘rushed through’ are safe.
Business Minister Paul Scully told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: ‘If they have flouted the notification law where they are supposed to tell the Secretary of State when they are going to make more than a hundred people redundant, then there are criminal sanctions involved in that, including an unlimited fine’
A P&O ferry called Pride of Canterbury at the port in Dover, Britain, March 18, 2022
New P&O staff members during safety training at the Port of Dover in Kent after the ferry giant handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices last week and services remain suspended, March 21, 2022
P&O Ferries staff protesting in Dover, Britain on March 18, 2022 after the mass sacking of 800 seafarers
P&O Ferries crisis: The lowdown
What’s going on?
P&O Ferries has made 800 workers redundant and replaced them with cheaper agency staff.
Can it do that?
Unions have threatened legal action and lawyers suggested workers could bring unfair dismissal claims. Tom Long, partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said the move ‘appears to contravene the requirements needed for a normal mass redundancy’.
Booked a ferry?
P&O Ferries was updating guidance over Twitter every half an hour yesterday. On some routes, including Dover to Calais, it advised customers to show up as usual and make their way to check-in booths run by ferry company DFDS. On others, such as between Larne and Cairnryan, the firm suggested customers only travel if essential.
If you are travelling in the near future you can book on an alternative carrier. DFDS and Irish Ferries offer routes between Dover and Calais. There are no direct alternatives for the other routes but Stena Line offers services to Ireland and Holland.
The firm has not commented but its terms and conditions say it will refund the ‘total fare’ of a crossing if ‘we cannot ship you at all with us or arrange a suitable alternative ferry crossing, or if you do not wish to take any alternative journey offered by us’.
And P&O Cruises?
P&O Cruises is owned by a different company and is not affected by the disruption.
And Tory chair Oliver Dowden voiced ‘revulsion’ at the firm’s ‘sharp practices’, accusing it of displaying no ‘empathy whatsoever’ towards workers and warning that the Government is looking at whether the abrupt sackings were legal.
However, a leaked memo suggests that Government officials were told about P&O Ferries’s plan to fire 800 workers ahead of time but were guaranteed it would ‘ensure they remain a key player in the UK market’.
The memo, believed to have been written by a senior official, claimed that if the company did not sack the 800 workers then ‘an estimated 2,200 staff would likely lose their jobs’ in future.
It was ‘widely shared across government’, including to the Prime Minister’s office and to Mr Shapps. The leaked memo reveals that the Department for Transport did nothing to oppose or question the company’s decision, even though it may have been against the law, the Sunday Times reports.
It states: ‘We understand that P&O Ferries have an intention to try and re-employ many staff on new terms and conditions or use agency staff to restart routes; they estimate disruption to services lasting 10 days.
‘Without these decisions an estimated 2,200 staff would likely lose their jobs. These changes will align them with other companies in the market who have undertaken a large reduction in staff.’
It comes after P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite came under fire for declaring ‘only the fittest survive’ after sacking 1,100 workers in response to Covid last May. He told the Mirror: ‘Only the fittest survive and we had to get fitter. My priority is still to grow our business through our people and our customers.’
Some 800 P&O Ferries workers were told they had lost their jobs with immediate effect in a video recording on Thursday. Ministers then piled in to blast the company’s decision and its chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite.
The DfT told the Sunday Times: ‘This was an internal government memo which, as standard practice, outlined what officials had been told by P&O Ferries shortly before their announcement was made.
‘This was sent before ministers were advised of the full details and as soon as they were informed, they made clear their outrage at the way in which P&O staff had been dismissed.
‘It is clear from the memo that our immediate priority was to work with unions to ensure workers’ rights continue to be protected and the transport secretary has urged the company to sit down with workers and reconsider this action.’
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) has announced it has discovered a ‘shocking twist’ to the scandal because replacement crews on P&O Ferries ships will be given ‘poverty pay’.
More demonstrations will be held in the next few days, with growing pressure on the company to reverse its decision and the Government to take action.
The RMT said P&O Ferries ships on the Liverpool-Dublin route have now been crewed with Filipino ratings on contracts which pay below the minimum wage.
Three P&O Ferries, Spirit of Britain, Pride of Canterbury and Pride of Kent moored up in the cruise terminal at the Port of Dover in Kent ahead of the company’s announcement
Members of the RMT union held a protest in Dover holding signs calling on P&O Ferries to ‘stop the jobs carve up’
Local MP Natalie Elphicke was blamed by the union members and crew she had turned up to support
Why do staff think employment law may have been breached?
Employment law states bosses have to consult during a statutory notice period before they can make people redundant.
It is this lack of consultation that has led trade unions to think that P&O’s actions could have been unlawful.
Rustom Tata, chairman and head of the employment group at law firm DMH Stallard, said: ‘For those staff who have been, or are about to be dismissed, they will certainly have claims for unfair dismissal,’
The law also says businesses who want to make over 100 redundancies have to tell the government 45 days before it happens.
This is a breach of the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
P&O have sent redundancy letters with offers of enhanced compensation.
Some have taken this as a signal the company realise it could have handled the process better.
Shipping companies which are registered in other countries and operating routes from UK ports to Europe can pay below the minimum wage because they are exempt from legislation.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘The weakness in UK employment law has not only allowed the mass dismissing of UK seafarers it has also incentivised this barbaric behaviour because employers know there may be no effective sanction to stop them doing so, and on top of that they can get away with paying below the minimum wage.
‘P&O may pay more than the minimum wage at first to agency staff but they will eventually move to rates below this simply because there is nothing to stop them from doing so.
‘We fear poverty pay will be accompanied by seafarers being chained to 12-hour day, seven-day week contracts that operate continuously for six months, with no pension.’
A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: ‘We know 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.
‘We took this difficult decision as a last resort and only after full consideration of all other options, but, ultimately, we concluded that the business wouldn’t survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements, which in turn would inevitably result in redundancies.
‘We also took the view, in good faith, that reaching agreement on the way forward would be impossible and, against this background, that the process itself would be highly disruptive, not just for the business but for UK trade and tourism.
‘We have offered enhanced severance terms to those affected to properly and promptly compensate them for the lack of warning and consultation. The changes we’ve made bring us into line with standard industry practice.
‘All affected crew who were working [at the time] were notified face-to-face and in-person on board their vessels. For crew who were off, P&O Ferries made all efforts to notify them personally: they were individually called on the phone, as well as via email and text.
‘Virtual meetings were also held but only 261 of our 800 affected staff were on those calls. To try to minimise disruption for our customers, we contacted everyone we could reach.
‘If any passengers have any queries about travelling with us, we encourage them to get in touch with our customer services team. The teams escorting the seafarers off our vessels were totally professional in handling this difficult task with all appropriate sensitivity. Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force.’
Pictured: P&O Ferries hire Dover fishing boat to get new agency workers to their ferries as union claim 800 sacked workers have been replaced by ‘£1.81-an-hour workers from India, Philippines and Ukraine’
P&O Ferries £1.82-an-hour foreign agency workers from India, the Phillipines and war-hit Ukraine have been pictured being transported to the scandal-hit operators ships in Dover.
The workers have been brought in to replace 800 sacked staff – with some of the temps living in tents to save cash.
Labour MP Karl Turner said they were expected to work mammoth 12-hour shifts for eight weeks at a time.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union say they are earning less than the £8.91 minimum wage, with one secretary claiming they got as little as £1.82.
Poorly-paid agency workers were pictured being transported to P&O Ferries ships in Dover
Workers from India, the Phillipines and war-hit Ukraine were pictured being taken to work
The moored ship used fishing boats to transport its new workforce – after sacking 800 staff
And the union representing the hundreds of sacked staff said the Dubai-owned company had ‘imported’ foreign workers to fill the jobs.
RMT Secretary-General Mick Lynch said: ‘They should face the severest sanctions possible and if needs be the government must use it’s powers which it has used oligarchs later and this is oligarch from Dubai, the sultan of Dubai, that has caused this to happen and we have got to see a direct intervention today about what they are going to do
‘These people are coming over here racing their horses they are taking over logistic travel across the world. We think they are importing Indian workers, Filipinos and Ukrainians at the moment to work on these vessels.
‘That cannot be acceptable. We cannot dismiss our people to bring in other people on a discount rate.
‘We were due to have a meeting with the business on Friday, then on Thursday they sacked all our members.’