The government is facing calls to intervene in the “national scandal” of 800 P&O Ferries workers being sacked for cheaper agency staff.
It comes after the ferry operator, bought by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World in 2019, provoked fury as it insisted the decision to cut jobs was “very difficult” but necessary for the survival of the business.
Many of those fired were reportedly told the news on a pre-recorded video, and were refusing to leave ships on Thursday, leading to security guards with handcuffs deployed to remove them.
During an emergency Commons statement, the company faced universal condemnation, with MPs describing the action as “shabby” and “disgraceful” while comparing the situation to Victoria-era practices.
Transport minister Robert Courts also hit out the action of P&O Ferries, telling MPs he made his anger “crystal clear” to the management of the company during a call on Thursday.
He said he would be discussing the situation with unions, adding: “I am extremely concerned and frankly angry at the way workers have been treated by P&O.”
But he also described the move as “fundamentally a commercial decision for the company” and repeatedly ducked calls from MPs for the government to directly intervene.
Sir John Hayes – a former Conservative transport minister – suggested the government should “recover any monies” granted to the ferry company through the furlough scheme during the pandemic.
And Huw Merriman, the Conservative MP who chairs the Transport Select Committee, suggested the government should try to prevent P&O Ferries’s decision to sack employees from being carried out.
He later said on the BBC’s PM programme: “All levers should be pulled including emergency legislation if needed.”
In response, Mr Courts described the situation as “fast-moving” and said he would commit to working will all government departments to “consider what relationships we have we with” the company.
However, he again reiterated that “commercial matters for a company are primarily a matter for them within the constraints of employment law, which of course in this country is high and there are standards that we expect to be respected and upheld”.
Describing the situation as a “national scandal”, the shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, also told MPs: “It is a betrayal of the workers that kept this country stocked throughout the pandemic.”
“There are images circulating of what we are told are handcuff-trained security, some wearing balaclavas marching British crew off their ships,” she said.
“This is not a corporate restructure, it is not the way to go about business. It is beneath contempt – the action of thugs.”
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, also urged ministers to intervene, as she described the P&O’s actor as “reprehensible and unlawful”.
She said: “When an employer lays off more than 100 staff at once they must consult workers and unions in advance. And they are required to notify the secretary of state in writing in advance too. The government must urgently explain what they knew and when.
“If P&O breached the law they must suffer severe consequences – with ministers increasing the legal penalties if necessary. If one employer gets away with this, every worker is at risk.”
The senior Labour MP John McDonnell added: “It’s the worst behaviour of a 19th century mill owner”.
A spokesperson for the ferry firm said: “In its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have made a £100m loss year on year, which has been covered by our parent DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.
“These circumstances have resulted in a very difficult but necessary decision, which was only taken after seriously considering all the available options.
“As part of the process we are starting today, we are providing 800 seafarers with immediate severance notices.”