P&O Ferries Draws More Fire for Mass Layoffs in UK

p o ferries
File image courtesy P&O Ferries

Published Mar 21, 2022 11:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, ro/ro ferry operator P&O Ferries dismissed 800 British seafarers and replaced them with contract workers from overseas, and it is receiving strong union pushback for the decision.

In the UK, P&O Ferries' decision to conduct a no-notice layoff is under scrutiny from regulators, law enforcement and the general public. Britain has consultation requirements for layoffs, and UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday that if the law was not followed, it would be "a matter for criminal prosecution and unlimited fines" for P&O. 

The company is owned by DP World, the Dubai-based conglomerate that bought British ports giant P&O in 2006. DP World sold P&O's ferry division to state holding company Dubai World a few years later, then bought it back again in 2019. 

DP World has its own fraught history with labor unions, and the mass firing has not improved matters. The International Transport Workers' Federation - which represents both seafarers and longshoremen - said in a statement Monday that it would consider solidarity actions at DP World facilities unless the company took steps to "engage and move to rectify this situation."

"In the interest of the 800 workers who have lost their jobs, we are ready and willing to facilitate dialogue between the company and the unions, but we also stand ready to provide meaningful solidarity across DP World’s global operations if need be, to defend these workers’ jobs," said Paddy Crumlin, the president of the ITF and chair of ITF’s Dockers’ Section.

On Monday, British transport workers' union RMT alleged that P&O Ferries crews at Dover have been replaced by Indian seafarers who are paid as little as $2.38 an hour. In a statement, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch called the wage rate "a shocking exploitation of those seafarers and another gut-wrenching betrayal of those who have been sacked." P&O Ferries told the BBC that this figure was not correct, but it did not provide a different number. 

The labor disruption has also left P&O unable to operate several of its routes, forcing it to divert paying customers to competitors like DFDS and Stena. 

This labor-relations decision has been made before in the British Isles. A P&O Ferries competitor, Irish Ferries, carried out a similar mass-redundancy operation in 2005. With no notice, it replaced all its seafaring staff with contract workers from overseas, drawing condemnation.

Last year, Irish Ferries launched its first foreign-crewed service on the core Dover-Calais route, bringing fierce new price competition to a trade long dominated by P&O Ferries and DFDS.