The British government says a Dubai government-owned ferry operator in the center of a bitter UK labor dispute may have broken the law when it fired 786 crew members without notice, replacing them with cheaper contract workers.
LONDON – The Dubai government-owned ferry operator in a bitter UK labor dispute may have broken the law when it fired 786 crew members without notice to replace them with cheap contract workers, the British government said on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned the “cruel” behavior of P&O ferries, saying the company appears to have violated British labor laws.
“We will take action,” Johnson said.
P&O Ferry claimed that the move was legal because the workers worked on a ship registered outside the UK.
But the company added that it could not survive without a “fundamentally altered crowing system” and that it had taken steps to save 2,200 other jobs. Dismissed sailors are being replaced by cheap workers hired by a third party crew provider.
The layoffs – which came after millions of British government support for P&O during the COVID-19 epidemic – sparked outrage and protests by trade unions in UK ports. P&O has canceled all its ferry crossings between Britain, Ireland and continental Europe since its announcement last week, disrupting the movement of both passengers and goods.
Trade unions have long objected to “fire and fire” policies that allow companies to dismiss staff members and re-employ them on worse terms. Under British labor law, such extreme measures are taken only after extensive employee consultation.
Peter Heblethwaite, chief executive of P&O, said: “This is not the first time we’ve done this.
“We have done this as a last resort and only after fully considering all other options,” he said in a letter to the government.
The letter came in response to a request from Business Secretary Quasi Quarteng for information, amid outrage from workers and allegations of P&O violating UK labor laws. Quarteng said last week that it appears the company has not followed the necessary procedures to dismiss a large number of employees and has informed that failure to do so is a criminal offense that could result in unlimited fines.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers reacted angrily to the P&O letter, saying the “disgusting statement” sought to justify the company’s “shameful actions”.
The ferry operator, a unit of Dubai-government-owned logistics giant DP World, said the sacked crew members worked on eight ships registered in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cyprus. They were employed by three P&O units in Jersey, a self-governing Crown Reliance that is not part of the UK
Crew members hired by two other subsidiaries based in France and the Netherlands have not been fired, P&O said.
The P&O ships have given advance notice to the authorities of the registered countries to shoot, Habelthwaite said. As a result, P&O does not believe it violated UK law.
P&O has announced that it will pay employees 13 weeks ‘pay for lack of advance notice, and a further 13 weeks’ pay instead of advice. In addition, P&O states that dismissed crew members will receive a salary of 28 weeks for each year of service, instead of the legally required 18 weeks.
About 575 laid-off workers have received separation packages, the P&O said.
But the RMT union said the package amounted to “blackmail and intimidation” because workers would receive only a fraction of their salary if they did not relinquish their legal right to file an action with the employment tribunal.
“They have robbed our members of their jobs, careers and pensions, threatening to lose thousands of pounds if they do not sign up and pay their dues,” said Secretary-General Mick Lynch in a statement.
Jill Lawless contributed to this story.