LONDON — British ferry operator P&O Ferries on Thursday made 800 staff redundant and suspended sailing with immediate effect, saying the business was “not sustainable” in its current form.
The company told its workers to return to ports ahead of a “major announcement” earlier Thursday, in a move expected to have caused severe disruption to travel for passengers and freight.
Amid rumors that employees are to be replaced with cheaper agency staff, workers unions urged staff to remain onboard in what could lead to a potential stand-off. The BBC reported that some crew members were indeed defying orders and refusing to leave their ships in protest.
P&O Ferries, which reportedly has almost 4,000 employees and operates over 30,000 sailings annually, has struggled to operate amid ongoing Covid-19 restrictions that have hampered the travel industry over the past two years.
“As part of the process we are starting today, we are providing 800 seafarers with immediate severance notices and will be compensating them for this lack of advance notice with enhanced compensation packages,” a spokesperson for P&O said.
The firm said it had lost £100 million ($131 million) year-on-year, which had been covered by its owner Dubai ports firm DP World.
“This is not sustainable,” the spokesperson said. “Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.”
The company added that it was unable to run services for the coming days, advising passengers to continue to travel to ports, where they would be accommodated by other carriers.
Workers’ union ‘deeply disturbed’
British transport union RMT expressed dismay at the sudden announcement, urging the government to step in and protect P&O staff from potential replacement.
“We are deeply disturbed by growing speculation that the company are today planning to sack hundreds of UK seafarers and replace them with foreign labour,” RMT wrote in a press release on its website.
“We have instructed our members to remain onboard and are demanding our members across P&O’s U.K. operations are protected and that the Secretary of State intervenes to save UK seafarers from the dole queue,” it added, referring to the U.K.’s unemployment benefits system.
Unions and the government’s opposition Labour party have accused some companies of attempts to “fire and rehire” staff, a move which effectively sees them being switched from permanent workers to those on weaker contracts with lower pay.
Earlier Thursday, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh called on the government to act, noting “unscrupulous employers cannot be given free rein to sack their workforce in secure jobs and replace with agency staff.”
The U.K. government said it would issue a statement on the matter Thursday 5 p.m. local time.