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Hundreds of U.K.-based ferry workers suddenly fired — many, via Zoom

A ferry operator owned by the government of Dubai sparked a furious response from workers and criticism from British authorities Thursday after firing 800 U.K.-based crew members without notice amid plans to replace them with cheaper staff.

P&O Ferries aims to cut costs, reportedly plans to replace outgoing workers with cheaper staff

A ferry belonging to P&O is pictured berthed at the company's terminal in Hull, Britain, on Thursday. Hundreds of U.K.-based ferry workers were fired without notice Thursday, sparking a furious response from workers and criticism from British authorities. (Carl Recine/Reuters)

A ferry operator owned by the government of Dubai sparked a furious response from workers and criticism from British authorities Thursday after firing 800 U.K.-based crew members without notice amid plans to replace them with cheaper staff.

P&O Ferries, one of the largest ferry operators in the United Kingdom, said the workers would be laid off with "immediate effect" as the company cuts costs after posting a 100-million pound ($132 million US) loss last year.

The British government warned that travellers could expect 10 days of disruption on routes to Ireland, Northern Ireland, France and the Netherlands.

Workers, many of whom were fired via Zoom message, reacted angrily after receiving no advance notice of their dismissal and being told that the ferries would be staffed by a third-party crew provider. Some locked themselves on their vessels in protest.

'Wholly unacceptable' treatment of workers

The British government, which provided millions of pounds of support to P&O during the coronavirus pandemic, criticized the way the company had treated "hardworking, dedicated" crew members.

P&O Ferries' passenger check-in at the port of Larne on the north-east coast of Northern Ireland, on Thursday. (Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images)

"The way they have been treated today is wholly unacceptable and my thoughts are first and foremost with them," British MP Robert Courts told the House of Commons.

"Reports of workers being given zero notice and escorted off their ships with immediate effect while being told cheaper alternatives would take up their roles shows the insensitive way in which P&O have approached this issue, a point I have made crystal clear to P&O's management."

P&O, like other travel-related businesses, was hit hard by the pandemic as government restrictions and fears about the virus forced many people to cancel travel plans. In May 2020, the company warned that around 1,100 workers could lose their jobs as part of a plan to make the business "viable and sustainable."

The ferry operator, a unit of Dubai-government owned logistics giant DP World, said it had no choice but to act quickly.

"In its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business," the company said in a statement. "Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now."

Fired workers to receive enhanced severance

The layoffs announced Thursday will protect as many as 2,200 other jobs and ensure that P&O can continue to carry passengers and cargo to and from Britain, the company said. Fired workers will receive enhanced compensation packages to make up for the lack of notice, it said.

But Nautilus International, a union representing many crew members, called P&O's actions "scandalous" and advised workers to stay on board their vessels "until further notice."

"The news that P&O Ferries is sacking the crew across its entire U.K. fleet is a betrayal of British workers," Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said in a statement. "There was no consultation and no notice given by P&O."

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT trade union, said his organization planned to take legal action against the company and called on the government to stop "one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations."

"We are receiving reports that security guards at Dover are seeking to board ships with handcuffs to remove crew so they can be replaced with cheaper labour," Lynch said.

Nautilus International said P&O received more than 4.3 million pounds ($5.6 million US) of emergency funding from the government during the pandemic as part of program to subsidize freight operators. It also received government support to pay more than 1,400 workers furloughed due to government restrictions, the union said.

Thursday's announcement "is nothing short of scandalous given that this Dubai-owned company received British taxpayer's money during the pandemic," Dickinson said.

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