P&O Ferries was inundated Friday by a storm of criticism over the dismissal of hundreds of sailors without warning, as ministers claimed the company may have broken the law and the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the “inhumane” decision.
The company, which is owned by Dubai’s DP World, saw its reputation shattered by the layoff of its British crews with immediate effect on Thursday.
The decision was described by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as “inhumane” and “completely unethical”, while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he would review all government contracts with P&O and DP World.
Kwasi Kwarteng, company secretary, said P&O “has given the business community a bad name” and “failed to follow proper procedures” around informing ministers about the dismissal of large groups of staff.
“Failing to comply with this obligation is a criminal offense and could result in an unlimited fine,” he warned, adding that the Insolvency Service had been called in to see if further action was needed.
Unions, Labor and even some Tory ministers said the company must repay at least £10m in leave money it received during the coronavirus pandemic. P&O was also paid £4.4million through a government emergency scheme to keep freight flowing during the 2020 lockdowns.
The company suspended sailings on Thursday as it fired crew members via a Zoom call and revealed plans to replace them with temporary staff, which unions said would largely consist of cheaper overseas labor.
Government officials were informed on Wednesday evening of P&O’s plans to lay off British crews, but ministers did not know until Thursday.
DP World has invested in the Thames Freeport, a site east of London that combines manufacturing hubs with ports at London Gateway and Tilbury. Southampton’s deep-sea container port was one of eight bidders to be granted free port status by the government last year, which entails tax benefits.
P&O broke nearly 24 hours of silence Friday afternoon to say it believed the ferry industry could not survive without “fundamentally changed crewing arrangements” and that the decision to lay off the workers was a “last resort”.
“Our aim is to get the first of our services up and running again in a day or two as we lose £1million a day for every day they don’t move,” the company said.
It added that it believed “in good faith” that a conventional dismissal procedure would have been highly disruptive and “that agreement on the path to follow would be impossible”.
Unions said P&O had tried to re-hire some of its laid-off British workers on cheaper temporary contracts. Nautilus, a seafarers’ union, said some of its members had been approached by agencies to return and work for P&O on a contract basis. P&O declined to comment on the rehires.
Darren Proctor, national secretary of the RMT, said the temporary staff brought onto ships in the past 24 hours have only been hired for a period of two weeks, and management will likely hire cheaper foreign staff after that.
A large crowd of protesters led by union leaders and MPs gathered at the docks in Dover on Friday, as P&O ferries docked on the west side of the harbor, away from the terminal. The RMT union made comparisons to actions against Russian oligarchs and said ministers should “occupy” P&O’s ships.
The sudden shortage of capacity on crucial freight routes, including the short straits between Dover and Calais, has sparked warnings of pressure on already congested supply chains. DFDS, another of three ferry companies between Dover and Calais, said passenger bookings were three or four times higher than usual in the coming days, as well as during Easter and the summer.
The Danish operator, which directly employs most of its crew, added that it had been able to handle traffic in the ports so far and would add two additional ferries over the weekend to accommodate the diverted traffic.
Peter Hebblethwaite, chief executive of P&O Ferries, told the company’s remaining employees, in a letter seen by the Financial Times, that the cheaper staff would cut crew costs by 50 percent. International Ferry Management, a Malta-based group first registered on Feb. 11, has been appointed to act as the crew management company, the letter said. Malta Business Registry showed that Antonio Ciriale, who appears in the Panama Paper databases, is director of IFM. Ciiale did not respond to requests for comment.
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