Employment

Union calls for boycott of P&O Ferries as channel crossings resume

The Trades Union Congress is calling on the government to sever all ties with companies P&O and DP World.

The Pride of Canterbury arrives in Dover, before P&O sacked most of its UK staff. Image: Roel Hemkes/Flickr

The UK’s largest trade union body is calling for a public and commercial boycott of P&O Ferries as channel crossings are allowed to resume from Dover.

Services have not operated between Dover and Calais since P&O Ferries sacked nearly 800 seafarers without notice on March 17, but the company has confirmed it expects freight sailings to resume this week, with passenger sailings following next week.

Despite the disgraced firm admitting it illegally sacked its entire workforce and replaced them with cheaper agency workers, P&O parent company DP World still holds lucrative government contracts to run the London Thames Gateway port and port of Southampton.

P&O Ferries’ chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite argued the sackings were necessary to keep the business afloat and told MPs he would “make this decision again”, despite admitting it broke the law.

Union TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady said P&O had gotten away with breaking the law with little more than a “slap on the wrist.”

Comparing the company’s behaviour to “corporate gangsters”, she said they “must not be allowed to get away with their scandalous and unlawful treatment of staff”.

“Ministers must sever all commercial ties with P&O and its owner DP World and ensure they do not receive a single penny of taxpayers’ money,” she continued.

#BoycottPandOFerries is being used on Twitter in support of the boycott, with one user claiming to be one of the sacked workers tweeting: “I was part of a group of 800 merchant seafarers who were disgracefully sacked last month by P&O Ferries. Yes, P&O Ferries, the infamous ferry company, do you remember them? So today I’ve got a message for the British public. Boycott P&O Ferries.”

It has since emerged that new agency workers were asked to sign new contracts – replacing their only recently signed old ones – on lower pay. P&O have now been forced to U-turn on this move after Maritime union, RMT, reported the company to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which stepped in to ensure the new workers retained their original pay

“There are no depths to which P&O and their Dubai owners at DP world will sink to extract the maximum profit from ferry crews operating our vital maritime supply chains,” said Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary. 

“This is underlined by the fact that despite this U-turn, P&O are still only paying barely half of the UK minimum wage of £9.50 per hour.”

RMT is calling for the government to take over the running of P&O ships and to reinstate all of the staff it made redundant.

Concerns have also been raised about the safety of the vessels, after it was reported that seven agency staff were sacked after returning from shore in breach of alcohol guidelines. 

The Spirit of Britain – which is to resume services this week – was just weeks ago found to have a number of deficiencies around safety. These have now been fixed and teh vessel cleared to sail, The i has reported

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The day after the mass sacking on March 17, it emerged that the government knew of P&O Ferries’ plan to fire its entire 800 person crew and replace them with contractors but “didn’t tell anyone”.

In response to the lawbreaking, the government announced new measures to ensure that all UK ferry operators pay the national minimum wage, and that this is applied to crew on all vessels sailing on British waters. 

P&O said that it welcomed the move, but that its “need to adopt a different crewing model would not change.” Under the new model, crew are paid for time worked plus holidays, as opposed to full pay  for working 24 weeks a year, the company said in a letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps. 

The government’s business misconduct watchdog, The Insolvency Service, has confirmed it has opened criminal and civil investigations into P&O Ferries. 

“The P&O scandal has shown beyond doubt that UK employment law is not fit for purpose…The government must honour its commitment to bring forward an employment bill,” O’Grady continued. 

The government had promised to boost employee rights in a wide-ranging Employment Bill that would have strengthened workers’ rights in pay negotiations, created a single body to enforce workers’ rights, as well as made flexible working the default.

However the FT has reported that the Employment Bill will not be given a mention in the Queen’s speech in May for the opening of the next parliamentary session, meaning that the pledge – dating back three years – has either been postponed yet again, or scrapped. 

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