Ferry company that outraged the U.K. over mass Zoom layoffs is being probed for breaking labor laws

March 18, 2022, 5:47 PM UTC

Leading U.K. ferry operator P&O fired 800 crew members over a three-minute Zoom call yesterday and sent handcuff-trained, balaclava-wearing security guards to remove the workers from boats so they could be replaced with cheaper agency labor.

The sudden and unexpected move has been condemned by British unions and members of the U.K. Parliament, but it has now emerged the government was made aware of the move the night before.

A spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Friday that senior officials at the Department for Transport had been informed of the firm’s plans but kept the information within a small group, due to the commercial sensitivity.

The U.K. government sharply criticized P&O Ferries for its abrupt firing, with the No. 10 spokesperson calling the firm’s behavior “extreme,” but did not go as far as accusing it of breaking any labor laws.

“We expect companies to treat their employees fairly. It is only in extreme circumstances that employers need to make extreme decisions to secure the future of their businesses if all other avenues have failed, including negotiations between employer and employees,” the spokesperson said, adding, “We don’t believe this was the case for P&O staff.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said at a Conservative Party conference on Friday that P&O had treated its employees in an “insensitive and brutal” way that was “no way to treat staff in the 21st century.” In an interview with Sky News, Shapps went further, adding, “If you need to get rid of people because you need to change the shape of your company, you need to sit down around the table with them and discuss those redundancies.”

Ministers are now investigating whether P&O Ferries broke the law in the firing.

The cull

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. On Thursday morning, the company, owned by Dubai-based DP World, told the crew to return to their respective ports and await a “major announcement.”

Once the boat arrived, the crew was informed they had been laid off through a prerecorded Zoom message at 11 a.m., according to Gary Jackson, a full-time officer onboard the Pride of Hull. Videos circulating on Twitter confirmed the Zoom announcement.

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

British trade union for rail, maritime, and transport laborers, RMT, instructed workers to stay on board in protest, but in an interview with BBC’s Radio 4 the boss of the maritime union Nautilus, Mark Dickinson, said that “handcuff-trained, balaclava-wearing private security guards” were deployed onto the boat to forcibly remove the crew.

In the wake of the mass firing, protests are being organized around major U.K. ports, such as Dover, Liverpool, and Hull.

Defending the decision

The ferry operator has since defended the “very difficult but necessary decision,” to fire the 800 workers, a P&O Ferries spokesperson said.

The company argued that “all affected crew who were working yesterday were notified face-to-face and in-person on board their vessels,” the statement said. It added, “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.”

It also emerged on Friday that the move to fire the 800 members of its staff enabled the company to halve its crewing costs. According to the Mirror Online, P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite wrote in a letter to staff, “The changes we’re making to our crewing model today [will] reduce our crewing costs by 50%.”

He added, “We have entered into a new partnership with International Ferry Management (IFM) who are an international crewing company, and they will be responsible for providing new crews for all those ships affected by this change.”

After the initial Zoom call, P&O Ferries circulated a statement saying major changes due to Brexit and COVID-19 lockdowns made the current business unviable. It said that P&O Ferries sustained a £100 million ($131 million) loss year on year, which has been covered by the parent company, DP World.

The backlash

The good business deal did not quell any anger, which extended across party lines.

The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, called it a “despicable assault on workers’ rights,” calling on the prime minister to take back the taxpayer money previously given to DP World, including £10 million in COVID-19 furlough scheme payments, suspend its license to operate, and remove it from the government’s transport advisory group.

The leader of the opposition government chimed in.

British writer and political activist George Monbiot, says, “The reduction of workers to fungible economic units, that can be exploited as ruthlessly as any other resource, is not an accidental outcome of deregulation. It’s the whole damn point of it.”

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