Fired on Zoom call, P&O Workers Snarl Ports by Refusing to Leave

Britain’s P&O Ferries slashed 800 jobs on a Zoom call in an effort to cut losses, triggering protests that confined ships to port and disrupted English Channel crossings as fired workers refused to leave their posts.

Britain’s P&O Ferries slashed 800 jobs on a Zoom call in an effort to cut losses, triggering protests that confined ships to port and disrupted English Channel crossings as fired workers refused to leave their posts. 

The Dover-based company’s vessels will be primarily crewed by an outside agency going forward, ferry workers were told Thursday via video, after P&O Ferries called its ships into port. Their union told them to stay put. 

“I am sorry to inform you that this means your employment is terminated with immediate effect, on the grounds of redundancy,” an official said in the clip, posted by the BBC. “Your final day of employment is today.”

The standoff that arose from the surprise move threatens continuity on vital trade links between the U.K., Ireland and continental Europe. While thousands of trucks depend on P&O Ferries each day to make the crossing, the company said it couldn’t continue without major changes after Brexit and Covid-19 battered its finances. 

“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. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.”

Hours to Days

P&O Ferries’ annual losses of 100 million pounds ($131 million) were covered by its owners, the Dubai ports operator DP World. 

The cuts, representing more than a quarter of its workforce, disrupted services even before a formal announcement was made. The move caught the union and the government by surprise. Operations won’t resume for the next few days, the company said. 

Junior Transport Minister Robert Courts later clarified the time frame, saying P&O’s service would be interrupted “for approximately a week to 10 days while they locate new crew.”

Security guards at the Port of Dover were trying to board vessels with handcuffs to remove crew, the RMT Union said.

“We are seeking urgent legal action and are again calling for the government to take action to stop what is fast turning into one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations,” RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said in a statement.

Workers aboard the Pride of Hull, docked on the Humber estuary in northeast England, were refusing to leave while their replacements waited to board, lawmaker Karl Turner said on Twitter.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the service halt was causing disruption at ports including Dover. 

“The way this was communicated to staff was not right,” said Max Blain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman, speaking to reporters on Thursday. “We are in very urgent discussions with P&O.”

Employers generally must consult with staff at least 45 days before making dismissals this large, said Adam Pennington, a lawyer at Stephensons. 

“P&O may have failed to comply with its legal obligation to consult with those members of staff before making them redundant,” Pennington said. This could give rise to claims including unfair dismissal and “protective award,” he said.

P&O Ferries is the largest operator on the Short Straits between the coast of Kent and Northern France, and is a major operator in the North Sea and Irish Sea. It has 2,200 employees remaining, it said in the statement. The company said it will offer redundant staff enhanced severance packages because of the short notice.

While the Dover-Calais route is a crucial trade and travel link to continental Europe for the U.K., it’s also served by other ferry operators, including Denmark-based DFDS A/S and Dublin-based Irish Ferries Ltd. Trucks and cars can also travel between France and the U.K. via the Channel Tunnel, operated by Getlink SE.

DFDS is providing alternative service for passengers with valid P&O tickets, Courts told lawmakers in Parliament.

“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,” Courts said, “a point I have made crystal clear to P&O management when I spoke to them earlier this afternoon.”

Long History

P&O Ferries traces its history to 1837 and a company that carried post between the Iberian Peninsula and London by steamer.

The firm established its English Channel and Irish Sea ferry services in the 1960s. It was bought by DP World, the ports operator owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, in 2006 as part of a $6.8 billion takeover of ports operator Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.

P&O Ferries today carries more than 10 million passengers and 2 million units of freight every year, linking Great Britain with France, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Holland and Belgium.

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