P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers on the afternoon of 17 March 2022, saying its survival depended on the ‘difficult but necessary decision’ after a £100 million year-on-year loss. Unions staged sit-ins and lawmakers protested the decision as P&O Ferries warned of widespread disruption to passenger travel.

‘Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries,’ the company said. P&O Ferries, owned by Dubai’s DP World, said the 800 seafarers would receive compensation for the lack of notice.

DP World, which owns the UK London Gateway facility and operates Southampton’s container terminal, recently announced a pre-tax profit of $1.35 billion, up from $1.08 billion in 2020. It said it had never taken a dividend from P&O Ferries nor its UK operations.

P&O warned passengers to expect serious disruption at its ports as it asked all its ships to discharge passengers and cargo and wait for further instructions. The announcement was made to staff via a video link, which stated that 17 March was their last day of employment with P&O.

The ferries

P&O ships at Dover were moved to the port’s Western Dock, away from the ferry terminal. The 2011-built Spirit of Britain, 1992-built Pride of Kent and 1991-built Pride of Canterbury, all Cyprus-flagged, were berthed at the cruiseship terminal away from their usual trade pattern.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: ‘We are working with the Kent Resilience Forum to ensure the free flow of traffic in Kent. Ministers will be speaking with P&O Ferries today to understand more about the impact on staff and passengers.’

P&O Ferries operates four routes: Dover to Calais; Hull to Rotterdam, using Pride of Hull (2001) and Pride of Rotterdam (2000); Liverpool to Dublin, using Norbay and Norbank; and Cairnryan, Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland. Two more freight-only services run from Zeebrugge to Teesport and Tilbury.

It has two 47,000gt newbuildings on order at China’s Guangzhou shipyard: P&O Pioneer, due to arrive in October 2023, and P&O Liberte, due in February 2023.

Union response

Nautilus International, the officers’ union, called the move a betrayal of British workers. ‘It is nothing short of scandalous given that this Dubai-owned company received millions of pounds of British taxpayer’s money during the pandemic,’ said general secretary Mark Dickinson.

‘There was no consultation and no notice given by P&O. Be assured the full resources of Nautilus International stand ready to act in defence of our members. We believe it is in our members’ best interests to stay onboard until further notice.’

The UK’s RMT union said the company should protect jobs. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: ‘This is a shocking move from P&O that should not be tolerated. Unite sends its solidarity to the seafaring crew, whose service as key workers during the pandemic has quickly been forgotten by P&O. We offer you our support as you seek to defend your jobs. It is a disgrace that any employer in the UK is able to treat its workers in this way.’

Bobby Morton, Unite’s national officer for docks and the maritime industry, added: ‘In a cut-throat sector, P&O was the last redoubt in the maritime industry, employing UK workers on UK contracts. This move today sends a very concerning signal that these standards are now under attack.

‘While Unite’s members are not swept up in this announcement, this move will only bring uncertainty to all P&O workers. We urge the company to step back from this drastic, cost-cutting measure and work with all the P&O unions to save jobs.’

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