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Unions push back against abrupt firing of hundreds of U.K. ferry workers

Unions protested at British ports Friday, demanding the government step in to save jobs and protect key trade routes after major ferry operator P&O Ferries fired 800 U.K. crew members to replace them with cheaper contract staff.

Staff cuts came after P&O received millions in government aid during the pandemic

Unions protested at British ports Friday, demanding the government step in to save jobs and protect key trade routes after major ferry operator P&O Ferries fired 800 U.K. crew members to replace them with cheaper contract staff. The photo above was taken at one such protest in Dover, England. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Unions protested at British ports Friday, demanding the government step in to save jobs and protect key trade routes after major ferry operator P&O Ferries fired 800 U.K. crew members to replace them with cheaper contract staff.

P&O has cancelled all its ferry crossings between Britain and continental Europe, threatening to disrupt the movement of travellers and goods across the English Channel and North Sea for days.

The British government expressed outrage at the mass firings — done over Zoom message — but suggested it could do little to reverse them. The staff cuts came after P&O received millions in British government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he felt shock and dismay at P&O's "insensitive and brutal treatment of its employees."

During a Conservative Party meeting in Blackpool, northwest England, Shapps said he was "looking at whether there are contracts the government might have with P&O" that could be used to pressure the company.

Union decries 'crocodile Tory tears'

Unions accused the Conservative government of taking too light a touch with big businesses. Gordon Martin of the RMT transport union accused the government of crying "crocodile Tory tears" and said weak British labour laws were allowing "bandit capitalism" to become rife.

Protesters gather outside the Port of Hull to demonstrate against P&O Ferries on Friday in Hull, England. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Unions have long objected to "fire and rehire" policies that let companies fire staff and re-employ them on worse terms. Under British labour laws, such extreme action is only meant to be done after extensive consultation with staff.

"We don't believe this was the case for P&O staff, but we are looking into this very carefully," said Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson, Max Blain.

He said it was "too early to be definitive" about whether P&O had breached labour laws.

The company's drastic action could cause wider economic disruption. The company cancelled ferry crossings on routes linking England to Ireland, Northern Ireland the Netherlands and France, including the cross-Channel Dover-Calais route that carries a large chunk of U.K.-Europe passengers and freight.

The government said the suspension could last a week to 10 days but insisted it did not expect "major disruption" because other ferry companies continued to ply the routes.

Ferry operator defends job cuts

The ferry operator, a unit of Dubai government-owned logistics giant DP World, acknowledged its decision had "caused distress" to the fired staff, but said it had "concluded that the business wouldn't survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements."

The Pride of Hull ferry, operated by P&O Ferries Ltd., remains moored at the Port of Hull in England on Friday. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

P&O said it had no choice but to cut costs after the pandemic hammered its finances, leading it to post a 100-million-pound ($132-million US) loss last year. 

Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite said replacing unionized U.K. seafarers with employees hired through the company International Ferry Management would cut P&O's labour costs in half, according to a letter obtained by news site Mirror Online.

P&O denied it had been heavy-handed in removing crews who initially refused to leave their vessels after being fired on Thursday.

"Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force," the company said in a statement.

Several hundred union members rallied beside the famous white cliffs in the Channel port of Dover, carrying banners that said, "Save our seafarers" and "Save Britain's ferries." Another 200 protested in the northeast England port of Hull, walking past the berthed ferry Pride of Hull before banging on the doors of the ferry terminal building.

Mayor calls for nationalization of ferry operations

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said the government should consider nationalizing P&O.

"I say to the prime minister: You have to step in, and you have to deliver on your commitment to strengthen employment law so this kind of gangster practice can't be allowed to happen any more," Burnham told a rally in the northwest port of Liverpool.

The P&O Pride of Kent and the Pride of Canterbury remain Friday at the Port of Dover in Kent, England, after P&O Ferries suspended sailings and handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices. (Gareth Fuller/PA/The Associated Press)

The opposition Labour Party demanded the Conservative government suspend DP World's contracts and licences and claw back the 4.3 million pounds ($5.6 million US) it gave the company in emergency funding during the pandemic.

Two unions representing P&O staff, Nautilus International and RMT, said they were preparing legal action against the company.

"This is clearly illegal," Nautilus General-Secretary Mark Dickinson said. "It's a dark day in the shipping industry."

P&O Ferries' ultimate owner is Dubai World, a holding company that says it is committed to "generating value" for its shareholder, the government of Dubai. The company's chair is Sheikh Ahmed Bin Said Al Maktoum, a member of the Dubai royal family.

Dubai World's holdings include the global logistics company DP World, which owns P&O Ferries. The company operates ports, shipping terminals and other facilities that employ more than 71,000 people in 69 countries around the world. In November, the company became the title sponsor of the European professional golf tour, which is now known as the DP World Tour.

DP World on March 10 said net income rose 5.9 per cent, to $896 million US last year. Revenue jumped 26 per cent, to $10.8 billion, after it acquired assets in the U.S., India, South Korea, Ukraine, Angola and Canada.

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