P&O Ferries today made all its crew members redundant with immediate effect and replaced them with agency staff – but unions told workers to refuse to leave their ships and stage a ‘sit in’ amid a huge row over pay.
Agency workers are already waiting at docksides in preparation for boarding the ferries, but P&O faces a battle to persuade its existing staff to disembark due to widespread fury at its ‘treacherous’ decision.
Labour MP Karl Turner tweeted a photo of agency employees waiting to board the Pride of Hull Ferry at the city’s King George Dock.
‘New foreign crew waiting to board… RMT sitting in onboard the vessel – they will not be boarding her,’ he wrote, adding: ‘We understand that both current officers and ratings are to be sacked.’
P&O Ferries – which said existing workers can apply to the agency for work – preceded its announcement by dramatically ordering all its ships back to port and kicking off bemused passengers with little warning.
It said customers with existing bookings should still show up and they will be provided with alternative transportation.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the House of Commons he was ‘concerned’ by the situation and had contacted P&O for urgent talks.
It came as DUP MP Jim Shannon claimed in the Commons that nearly half of P&O Ferries is owned by a Russian business. ‘I understand that 40% of the holdings of P&O Ferries is held by a Russian company,’ he said.
The RMT said: ‘We have instructed our members to remain onboard 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.’
P&O Ferries, which transports passengers and freight, is owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World.
It operates four routes: Dover to Calais; Hull to Rotterdam; Liverpool to Dublin; and Cairnryan, Scotland, to Larne, Northern Ireland.
Sailings between Hull and Zeebrugge, Belgium, were axed in January 2021.
The firm carried 10million passengers a year before the pandemic and about 15% of all freight cargo in and out of the UK.
But like many transport companies it saw a dramatic slump in demand in 2020, forcing it to announce 1,110 job cuts. That follow its failure to secure a £150m bailout from the government.
Today, one driver in Calais due to return to the UK said he had been waiting for a ferry since 6am.
‘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.’
The driver, who wished to remain nameless, said he had been able to rebook with DFDS, saying: ‘I’ve had to exit the port and go through the entire process again, not to mention paying for another ticket at a higher price with them.’
‘I would have appreciated somebody at least telling us what to do’, he added.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons: ‘I understand they have temporarily paused their operations and that’s causing disruption at the short straits – Calais-Dover – as well as some other ports.
‘I’m working with the Kent Resilience Forum and I’ve just instructed them to become intricately involved, and other partners in this, and we’ll be taking steps later today – including ensuring that my officials will be having urgent discussions with P&O about the situation, particularly of concern for their workers.’
Earlier today, the ferry operator said it was on the cusp of ‘making a major announcement today’ which will ‘secure the long-term viability of P&O Ferries’.
The statement added: ‘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.’
Following the coronavirus outbreak, P&O Ferries warned in May 2020 that around 1,100 workers could lose their jobs as part of a plan to make the business ‘viable and sustainable’.
A spokesman for the company said: ‘P&O Ferries is not going into liquidation.
‘We have asked all ships to come alongside, in preparation for a company announcement.
‘Until then, services from P&O will not be running and we are advising travellers of alternative arrangements.’
The company that would become P&O was founded in 1837 after signing a government contract to transport post by boat between London and the Iberian Peninsula.
Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association (BTA), said: “We are deeply disturbed about the news of mass firing at P&O ferries. This disregard for important roles in the travel sector will have a devastating impact on business travel at a crucial time for recovery. Our thoughts are with P&O employees during this uncertain time. The BTA will work with all relevant bodies to support impacted employees in the coming weeks.”