Angry protests against P&O Ferries were held across Britain on Friday as the government announced it is investigating whether the firm broke the law with its “appalling” decision to sack 800 seafarers.
Demonstrations were held in Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne in Northern Ireland and outside the London head office of Dubai-based parent firm DP World amid growing anger at the sudden sacking of staff with no notice.
Attempts are being made to replace them with cheaper agency workers, but the company is facing a backlash, including calls for a boycott of its services.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told the firm it had “lost the trust of the public and has given business a bad name”.
He wrote to the company’s chairman Robert Woods, saying the way the staff have been treated “has been appalling”.
“It is particularly depressing that this should happen given the millions of pounds of British taxpayer support P&O companies received from the furlough scheme,” the minister added.
However, a Downing Street spokesperson was forced to admit that senior officials in the Department of Transport were informed by the P&O chief executive on Wednesday evening of the company’s plans.
Ministers are investigating whether P&O Ferries broke the law by sacking the workers on the spotafter criticism that it was washing its hands of the controversy.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said he was “furious” over the sackings.
“The Tories have created an environment where a bad employer thinks they have licence to tear up staff contracts,” he tweeted. “Labour will introduce a new deal for working people to make work more secure.”
In Dover, there were cries of “seize our ships” as hundreds of union members and supporters set off from Maritime House – the Dover office of the RMT union – to the docks.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, and the former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, headed the march.
“We want the government to bring the company in and insist on reinstatement for the workers,” said Mr McDonnell.
The Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington told The Independent: “If they don’t think they’ve got power to do that, bring forward emergency legislation to enable that to happen.
“But also if necessary stop these ships going out until we get a settlement, because this isn’t just about jobs and the future of our ports – it’s about the future security of our country as well.
“This is a critical issue. The government’s got to act. It can’t sit on the fence.”
Mr Lynch said the transport minister, Robert Courts, had revealed to him that the DfT had been told about P&O Ferries’ intentions on Wednesday night but declined to reveal the plans to the union.
“I would expect him to pick up the phone and tell the representatives of the workforce what’s happening so we can get straight on to the company,” Mr Lynch told The Independent.
“He never picked up the phone. He went to bed.”
There were angry scenes as the local Tory MP was jeered by angry demonstrators who chanted “shame on you”.
Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, was heckled by union members, with other protesters shouting: “You voted for fire and rehire.”
In a new statement on Friday, P&O Ferries defended its actions, saying: “We took this difficult decision as a last resort and only after full consideration of all other options but, ultimately, we concluded that the business wouldn’t survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements, which in turn would inevitably result in redundancies.
“We also took the view, in good faith, that reaching agreement on the way forward would be impossible and against this background, that the process itself would be highly disruptive, not just for the business but for UK trade and tourism.”
The company acknowledged that the sackings “came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families”.
The statement added: “The changes we’ve made bring us into line with standard industry practice.
“Our aim is to have the first of our services running again in the next day or two as we lose £1m a day for each day they are not moving. The teams escorting the seafarers off our vessels were totally professional in handling this difficult task with all appropriate sensitivity.
“Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force.”
Around 400 protesters gathered outside the Port of Liverpool, including metro mayor of Liverpool Steve Rotheram and Sefton Central’s Labour MP Bill Esterson.
Mr Rotheram said: “It’s an absolute disgrace that in this day and age a company, just overnight, can say, ‘That’s the end of your job. That’s the end of your loyal service. You’re sacked and you’ve got no right to appeal’.”