UK passenger and freight routes are facing days of disruption after P&O Ferries ordered its ships to return to port to lay off 800 seafarers.
In a video message shown to the team, the company said it would replace laid-off workers with cheaper agency staff.
The company, which is owned by Dubai-based DP World, said Britain’s best-known ferry operator was not “a viable business” in its current state and had made the “decision very difficult but necessary” to cut jobs.
As P&O sent security personnel to evacuate crew from their ships, the company was harshly criticized by politicians and unions.
“The path [the crew] have been dealt with today is totally unacceptable,” Transport Minister Robert Courts told MPs.
Karl Turner, Labor MP for East Hull, said P&O was engaged in ‘predatory capitalism of the most grotesque kind’, while Nautilus, the seafarers’ union, said there had been no consultation or notification given to staff, and that P&O’s actions were “nothing outrageous”.
P&O said the 800 sailors would be compensated for the short notice of job losses, without giving further details.
Cyprus-based Columbia Shipmanagement, one of the world’s largest ship managers, confirmed it was among the agencies providing the replacement crew.
After initially anticipating delays of a few hours, P&O later admitted it would not be able to operate ferries “for the next few days”, throwing busy shipping routes into uncertainty.
The courts said he expected disruptions of a week to 10 days while P&O trained a new crew.
Rival ferry operator DFDS stepped in and was providing alternative services to P&O passengers with tickets, he added.
P&O operates on the Dover-Calais passenger and freight route, as well as services between the UK mainland and Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands.
The shutdown would cause a “massive problem” for UK supply chains as the company is responsible for around a third of the cross-Channel ferry market with France, said Philip Edge, chief executive of Edge Worldwide Logistics, a freight brokerage.
“It’s the equivalent of taking Maersk and another carrier out of the global container market, but for France-UK trade,” he said.
Fresh foods such as croissants, brioches and cheeses that he imports were at risk of not making it to supermarket shelves. The flow of goods to Ireland would also be disrupted, he added.
John Manners-Bell, chief executive of Transport Intelligence, a consultancy, said the arrival of the parts needed by manufacturers was also at risk.
Highlighting the ‘long-planned’ arrangements to disrupt the Dover-Calais route, the courts said government modeling ‘suggests we have sufficient capacity to handle the loss of these ferries’.
DP World, a container and logistics group, bought P&O Ferries for £322million in 2019. It laid off 1,100 workers at the start of 2020 when the pandemic hit. P&O reported revenue of £138m for 2020, up from £145m in 2019, according to its latest accounts at Companies House.
“We made a loss of £100m year on year which was covered by our parent company DP World,” P&O said. “It is not sustainable. Our survival depends on rapid and significant change now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.
DP World itself reported record results for 2021 last week, with EBITDA up 15% to $3.8 billion.