Late on Thursday morning, P&O’s sailors and crew huddled around screens on board their vessels to be told in a short video message that they were losing their jobs.
A suited executive apologised for his “rather stilted” delivery as he carefully read out a scripted message telling 800 workers that two consecutive years of heavy losses had left management with no choice but to immediately replace its UK crew with agency staff on cheaper contracts.
“I am sorry to inform you that your employment is terminated with immediate effect . . . your final day of employment is today,” the executive said, according to a copy of the video seen by the Financial Times.
Newly redundant staff were promised “enhanced” payouts if they signed, and “complied in full”, with redundancy settlement agreements within two weeks, and were offered counselling. The message was over within five minutes.
The ruthless decision carried echoes of the worst moments of industrial strife in the 1980s, and instantly drew criticism from politicians and union bosses. It rapidly reverberated around ports in the UK, Ireland and continental Europe as P&O pulled all services with no notice.
The group operates on the Dover to Calais route, one of the busiest sea-crossings in the world, as well as links between western Scotland and Northern Ireland, Liverpool and Dublin and Hull and Rotterdam.
Car drivers and hauliers arrived to chaotic scenes as unions advised ferry staff to refuse to leave P&O’s ships and private security contractors were seen on some docks.
The RMT Union said security staff with handcuffs boarded ships to clear crew members, and called for mass protests against the company. Labour MP Diana Johnson said security staff wore balaclavas as they removed British workers from the ships. “This is shameful,” she said in the House of Commons.
RMT boss Mick Lynch said the scenes that played out at docks were “one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations”.
By early afternoon, P&O Ferries announced it would be unable to run services for “a few days” while it trained up new crew, plunging critical sea lanes into turmoil.
Freight brokerages and consultants estimated that P&O accounted for 30-50 per cent of the cross-channel ferry market to France.
The wave of cancellations were set to “create merry hell in the English channel”, Gary Lyons, owner of haulier Lyons European said.
Alan Williams, one of Lyons’ drivers who was due to take the 12:40 P&O ferry to Calais, said the disruption had already created four miles of traffic tailbacks on the A20 out of Dover.
Forewarned by his sister of the P&O sackings, he was able to take the DFDS service to Dunkirk, which would add three to four hours to his journey.
Others will have fared worse. “If I’d stayed in that queue I’d have been stuck there for four hours . . . it’ll be chaos the more the day goes on. There’s only going to be an even bigger backlog,” he said.
Peter Wilson, managing director of Cory Brothers, a shipping agent, described the situation as “just another stick in the eye for British supply chains.”
Seventy-five miles from Dover, in Westminster, ministers were blindsided by the sudden sackings, and transport minister, Robert Courts, told Parliament the way P&O had dealt with the situation was “completely unacceptable”.
Courts said he held a call with P&O’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, on Thursday in which he told him he was “extremely concerned, angry” about how staff had been treated.
“To be told over a television screen and not face to face is not what we expect. I expect people to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
The mass sackings cap two years of turmoil at P&O Ferries, which was bought by Dubai-based DP World in 2019 but has been owned by companies linked to the Dubai government for nearly 20 years.
P&O Ferries said on Thursday that it had lost £100mn in both 2020 and 2021, and was not currently “a viable business”. It received emergency government funding to help it maintain freight operations in spring 2020, as the Covid pandemic hit.
In 2019, the company registered its UK vessels to the Cyprus flag ahead of Britain’s departure from the EU in what unions feared was a step towards introducing a low-cost crewing model.
Almost exactly two years ago, P&O’s staff had received a very different video message from then chief executive, Janette Bell, saying they would have to continue working as the pandemic hit Britain and Europe because the company played a “vital part of Europe’s transport infrastructure”.
Bell and her successor have since left the company.
Neil Todd, a partner at Thompsons Solicitors, which is advising the RMT, said P&O’s actions were “a shocking disregard of the most basic employment law.
“The law states that if you’re dismissing more than 20 employees, you must consult with them.”
Kevin Rowan, head of organising at the TUC, said P&O’s action raised questions over whether the company was breaching maritime safety rules, as well as employment law, since a reasonable handover period was required when crews were changed.
As concerns grew, the government was already coming under pressure to avert a major crisis.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said the action by P&O was “a national scandal. It is a betrayal of the workers that kept this country stocked throughout the pandemic.”
“This is a straightforward assault on British seafaring,” she added. “It cannot be allowed to stand.”