Leading ferry operator sacked its entire crew over Zoom and had ‘handcuff-trained, balaclava-wearing’ security guards ready to usher on cheaper replacements

Leading U.K. ferry operator P&O sparked chaos and outrage after firing its entire 800 members of crew, with cheaper agency labor lined up to replace them.

Laid-off employees initially refused to get off the boats, with union bosses claiming security guards were deployed to U.K. ports seeking to board ships with handcuffs to remove crew.

On Friday morning, the company announced it would not run services “for the next few days”.

Protests are being organized around major U.K. ports, such as Dover, Liverpool and Hull.

The boss of the maritime union Nautilus, Mark Dickinson, described seeing “handcuff-trained, balaclava-wearing private security guards deployed” on Thursday, in an interview with BBC’s Radio 4.

“This is a new low for a shipping company. It is a dark day for the shipping industry,” he added.

“I have been in this industry for over 40 years and I’ve seen some curve balls and shocking developments but this is a new low for a shipping company.”

On Thursday morning the ferry operator, owned by Dubai-based DP World, canceled all of its services and laid off 800 workers over Zoom—a “very difficult but necessary decision,” a spokesperson for P&O Ferries said, made to secure the future viability of the business.

After major changes and costs incurred with Brexit, along with COVID-19 lockdowns battering the company’s finances, P&O Ferries said it sustained a £100 million ($131 million) loss year on year, which has been covered by the parent company, DP World.

“In its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business,” the company said in a statement. “This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now.”

The laid-off crew members refused to disembark from the boat and created a standoff between U.K.’s left wing and the private boat company seeking to get everyone off the boat as soon as possible.

The three-minute Zoom call

P&O Ferries told its crew on Thursday morning to return to port and await a “major announcement.”

P&O Ferries is the leading operator on the Dover-Calais crossing—the main sea link from Britain and Europe. It also sails from Hull and Liverpool in England and Cairnryan in Scotland.

“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,” the company said in a statement, according to a note posted by Labour MP for East Hull Karl Turner on social media.

Once the boat arrived, the crew was informed they had been laid off through a pre-recorded Zoom message at 11 a.m., according to Gary Jackson, a full-time officer onboard the Pride of Hull.

At the dock, buses filled with replacement crew and security staff were waiting to remove the workers from the boats and replace the staff.

Upon hearing the news, British trade union for rail, maritime, and transport laborers, RMT, instructed workers to stay on board. “We have instructed our members to remain on board and are demanding our members across P&O’s U.K. operations are protected and that the secretary of state intervenes to save U.K. seafarers from the dole queue,” RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said.

James Sloth, who has worked for P&O Ferries in Dover for around four years, told the BBC he felt abandoned, saying all he received “was a three-minute prerecorded message saying we are out of a job. Nothing else.”

P&O Ferries said in a statement they are providing 800 seafarers “with immediate severance notices and will be compensating them for this lack of advance notice with enhanced compensation packages.”

A “scandalous betrayal”

P&O apologized 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.”

The sudden layoff of 800 workers quickly exploded in British politics. Unions called the ferry company’s decision to sack the workers a “scandalous betrayal.”

The opposition Labour Party’s shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, called on the government to act.

“Unscrupulous employers cannot be given free rein to sack their workforce in secure jobs and replace with agency staff,” she said, calling on the Conservative government in power in the U.K. “to secure the livelihoods of these workers.”

The maritime union Nautilus International said the news was “a betrayal of British workers.”

Dickinson, said: “It is nothing short of scandalous, given that this Dubai-owned company received British taxpayers’ money during the pandemic.”

Ferry passengers and trucks crossing the English Channel from France to the U.K. have been diverted to the other ferry operator, DFDS, or the Eurotunnel train services.

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