Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Sunday sparked anger from unions after he signalled that ministers will allow P&O Ferries’ Dubai-based owner to continue to invest in freeports in the UK even after the firing of hundreds of staff.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Morning, Sunak described the decision by P&O Ferries to sack 800 UK-based workers with no notice as “appalling” and “awful”, adding that the government was examining whether the company’s actions complied with the law.
However, when questioned on whether the government would prevent Dubai-based and state-controlled logistics and shipping giant DP World from owning and operating freeports in the UK, Sunak suggested that this would be treated separately to the P&O controversy.
“I think there are two different things,” he said. “The P&O ferry situation is something that we are actively looking at and as I said we are reviewing all the contracts across government with P&O to determine what the right next steps are.”
DP World has poured £2bn into the UK economy, with a further £1.5bn earmarked for “further investment”.
The company runs the UK’s second and third-biggest shipping terminals, at Southampton and London Gateway respectively.
Both ports are part of special economic zones that have been awarded freeport status by Sunak. Freeports are still being set up and have not yet received capital funding from the government.
“We are working urgently to establish the facts of what has happened in this case, and whether P&O or DP World are in breach of any of the requirements on them as partners in the Thames and Solent Freeports”, the government said.
Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the Nautilus trade union, said he was “deeply disappointed to hear of this spineless government’s refusal to end all business with DP World”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said both P&O and DP World “must be made an example of”.
“Any prospect of DP World’s ports being granted ‘freeport status’ by the government must be stopped. And ministers should get around the table with trade unions to review existing contracts with DP World and P&O Ferries,” she said.
Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that a memo regarding the sackings was written by Whitehall officials and circulated across some government departments ahead of the company’s mass firing announcement on Thursday.
According to the newspaper, the memo noted that P&O Ferries had intended to “try and re-employ many staff on new terms and conditions or use agency staff to restart routes”. However, the move was justified on the grounds that it would ensure that the company remained “a key player in the UK market for years to come through restructuring”.
P&O management was unable on Sunday to say when its main services would resume.
Unions said services between Liverpool and Dublin restarted on Saturday using Dutch-registered ships, but other routes, including the key Dover-Calais artery, remain suspended.
A former worker in a supervisory role said he understood that P&O planned to restart its Dover-Calais service on Thursday, when agency staff would carry out drills that will be evaluated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
However, Dickinson said it was unlikely P&O would restart services soon as the operator was “leaking agency staff”, after some walked out following the controversy.
Unions and sacked staff have also raised concerns about safety on board P&O’s vessels owing to the use of inexperienced workers.
A document seen by the Financial Times showed that in July 2021 three safety incidents were reported in one day involving agency workers from Clyde Marine Recruitment, one of the agencies being used by P&O to replace sacked workers. The MCA and Clyde Marine Recruitment did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The RMT union said it expected P&O to hire staff from India, Indonesia and the Philippines and pay below the minimum wage. RMT general secretary Mike Lynch said staff would be offered as little as $3.47 per hour.
P&O and DP World did not respond to requests for comment but have previously said the restructuring was necessary to sustain the business.