Chancellor Rishi Sunak sparked anger with unions on Sunday after he indicated that ministers will allow the Dubai-based owner of P&O Ferries to continue investing in free ports in the UK, even after hundreds of employees have been laid off.

Sunak described P&O Ferries’ decision to fire 800 British workers without notice in a BBC speech on Sunday morning as “appalling” and “terrible”, adding that the government was investigating whether the company’s actions were consistent. with the law.

However, when asked whether the government would prevent Dubai-based and state-controlled logistics and shipping giant DP World from owning and operating free ports in the UK, Sunak suggested that this be treated separately from the P&O controversy.

“I think there are two different things,” he said. “The P&O ferry situation is something we are actively looking at and as I said, we are reviewing all government contracts with P&O to determine the appropriate next steps.”

DP World has poured £2bn into the UK economy, with a further £1.5bn earmarked for “further investment”.

The company operates the UK’s second and third largest shipping terminals, at Southampton and London Gateway respectively.

Both ports are part of special economic zones that have been given free port status by Sunak. Freeports are still being set up and have not yet received capital funding from the government.

“We are urgently working to establish the facts of what happened in this case, and whether P&O or DP World are in conflict with any of the requirements placed on them as partners in the Thames and Solent Freeports,” said the government.

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the Nautilus union, said he was “deeply disappointed to learn of this slack government’s refusal to end all business with DP World”.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that both P&O and DP World “should be an example of”.

“Any prospect of DP World’s ports being given ‘freeport status’ by the government should be stopped. And ministers should sit down with unions to review existing contracts with DP World and P&O Ferries,” she said.

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that a memo about the layoffs had been written by Whitehall officials and spread across a number of government departments ahead of the announcement of the company’s mass layoff on Thursday.

According to the paper, the memo noted that P&O Ferries planned to “try to re-employ many staff on new terms or use temps to restart routes”. However, the move was justified as it would ensure that the company “will remain a major player in the UK market for years to come through restructuring”.

The P&O management could not yet say on Sunday when the main services will be resumed.

Unions said services between Liverpool and Dublin restarted on Saturday with ships registered in the Netherlands, but other routes, including the main artery Dover-Calais, remain on hold.

A former employee in a supervisory role said he understood P&O planned to restart its Dover-Calais service on Thursday, when staff from the agency staff would conduct exercises that will be evaluated by the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency.

However, Dickinson said it was unlikely P&O would restart services once the operator “leaked agency staff,” after some walked out after the controversy.

Unions and layoffs have also expressed concerns about safety on board P&O’s ships due to the use of inexperienced workers.

A Financial Times document reveals that three security incidents were reported in one day in July 2021 involving temporary workers from Clyde Marine Recruitment, one of the agencies used by HR to replace laid-off workers. The MCA and Clyde Marine Recruitment did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The RMT union said it expected P&O to hire workers from India, Indonesia and the Philippines and pay below the minimum wage. The RMT’s general secretary, Mike Lynch, said the staff would be paid just $3.47 an hour.

P&O and DP World did not respond to requests for comment, but have previously said the restructuring was necessary to support the company.

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