By Anna Cooban, CNN Business
A Dubai-owned British ferry company laid off 800 seafarers on Thursday, wreaking havoc in some of the country’s biggest ports and prompting union officials to urge workers to occupy their ships.
P&O Ferries carries over 10 million passengers and 2.2 million freight units between ports in the UK and Europe every year. The company, which belongs to the Dubai logistics group DP World, said to have resorted to massive layoffs to ensure its survival.
“In its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have made a loss of £100m ($130m) year on year, which has been covered by our parent company DP World” , a spokesperson told CNN Business in a statement.
“It’s not sustainable. Our survival depends on rapid and meaningful change now,” the spokesperson added.
The summary dismissals sparked a political firestorm, with lawmakers from Britain’s two main parties condemning the company’s decision. The government addressed the decision in parliament on Thursday.
“The behavior we have seen today is absolutely unacceptable,” Robert Courts, the Minister of Aviation and Maritime, told lawmakers.
Tory lawmaker Huw Merriman, who chairs a transport committee in parliament, called the mass shootings “appalling” and questioned their legality.
“The government must do everything it can to ensure that this appalling employment transaction cannot go ahead,” he said in a statement. DP World “must understand that UK customers will not do business with companies that treat their staff with contempt”, he added.
P&O Ferries said it would provide ‘enhanced pay’ for redundant staff. He said services would be suspended over the next few days and passengers would be rebooked with other carriers.
The company told crew on Thursday to disembark passengers and remove cargo from their vessels, according to a memo to staff shared by British lawmaker Karl Turner on Twitter. The company said in the memo that it expected “serious disruption” at ports as a result.
P&O Ferries make up to 70 crossings a day between the port of Dover in the UK and France. The port is a key driver of Britain’s economy, accounting for up to 17% of the country’s pre-Brexit goods trade, according to consultancy Oxera.
RMT, a union representing transport workers, had speculated before Thursday’s announcement that hundreds of its members would be replaced by foreign workers – and asked them to stay on board.
Turner, who represents the city of Hull in northern England, said an RMT officer on board the ship The Pride of Hull told him that at least 72 crew were refusing to disembark. Turner said he visited King George Dock, where the ship is located, and saw two buses of agency workers waiting to board as well as two minibuses of security guards.
Mark Dickinson, the general secretary of Nautilus International, a union representing maritime workers, called the sackings “a betrayal of British workers”.
Susannah Streeter, senior investment and market analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said the way the company laid off workers was unlikely to help it win customers.
“This could quickly turn into a serious reputational headache for the company, with a big union fight looming,” Streeter said.
Rustom Tata, an employer lawyer and chairman of law firm DMH Stallard, said it appeared P&O Ferries was trying to avoid renegotiating wages with its workers and replacing them with agency staff.
“For staff members who have been or are about to be terminated, they will definitely have wrongful termination claims,” Tata said.
“One has to wonder to what extent the integrity of the P&O brand will be affected not only by the fact of the layoffs, but also by the seemingly fully planned approach adopted for such a large proportion of its workforce, ignoring some of the fundamental principles of based. employee relations,” he added.
British trade has been hit by the pandemic and the country’s exit from the European Union. Merchandise trade with the rest of the world was down 7% below 2019 levels by August last year, while trade with the European Union was still down 15%, the Office said. for Budget Responsibility in October.
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