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British Freight Ferry’s Mass Layoffs Spark Calls for Government Action

A mass layoff conducted over video at British shipping company P&O Ferries sparked a wave of worker protests in Britain Friday as unions and some lawmakers push for government intervention.

P&O Ferries, which shuttles both passengers and freight within the U.K., alerted some 800 employees Thursday of the decision by the company to enlist a third-party provider to run its fleet in an effort to reduce costs.

Workers were told by a P&O employee in the video, “I am sorry to inform you that this means your employment is terminated with immediate effect on the grounds of redundancy. Your final day of employment is today.”

Spokespeople for P&O and its parent Dubai-based DP World could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

The move was reportedly done in an effort to shore up the business, which has been operating at a loss to the tune of 100 million pounds ($131.8 million).

“Today we’ve announced changes to the P&O business which will secure our future,” the company said in a public announcement Thursday. “While we make these changes, many of our services will be disrupted over the next few days.”

P&O said its Larne-Cairnryan and Hull-Europort freight routes have been halted. The Dublin-Liverpool route has limited operations, while Dover-Calais will be shipped through a charter service.

The company’s freight business operates routes for shippers moving goods to France, Belgium, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and England. The company says on its site it can accommodate livestock, hazardous and other dangerous goods and heavy loads.

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P&O said it moved 2.2 million units of freight last year, with a fleet of 16 ships and as many as 350 weekly departures.

On the passenger side, a number of advisories have been issued.

“P&O Ferries services are unable to run for the next few days. We are advising travellers of alternative arrangements,” the company said in a social media post Friday.

The layoffs were met with swift condemnation by union officials, who said they did not receive advance warning of the company’s plans.

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of maritime workers union Nautilus International, told BBC News Thursday the union does not believe P&O’s actions were legal.

“We think it’s illegal and morally reprehensible. I’ve been in this game 40 years and the industry never ceases to surprise me and indeed shock me on occasion. This is a new low for a proud maritime nation like the U.K., [and] for a once-proud company,” Dickinson said.

Nautilus represents more than 20,000 maritime workers in the U.K., Netherlands and Switzerland.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), representing more than 83,000 members, is calling on government officials to take over the P&O ships unless the company changes course on its decision, in addition to legislation that would further protect worker rights.

“We welcome the fact that the government’s own MPs are calling for radical action and yesterday’s events should also mark a sea change in how we treat workers in this country. The fact that the government knew the day before that a foreign-owned company planned to cause major disruption to U.K. ports but did nothing to prevent it is shocking,” RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said.

P&O came under DP World’s fold through a 2019 acquisition in which it bought back the company it owned 10 years prior for 322 million pounds ($424.2 million).

DP World reported revenue of $10.8 billion in 2021, up 26.3 percent from the prior year and record adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $3.8 billion, up 15.3 percent. The company said it has 190 business units spread across 69 countries.

Louise Haigh, Labour Member of Parliament and Shadow Transport Secretary, was with protesters in Dover Friday and called P&O’s actions a “national scandal.”

Haigh wrote to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson Friday, questioning why the government knew as early as Wednesday night of the P&O layoffs, why DP World has representation on the U.K. Government’s Transport Advisory Group and asking for P&O and DP World’s licenses and contracts to be suspended until the matter is resolved.

“British seafarers don’t need meaningless platitudes—they need action,” Haigh wrote to Johnson. “It is time you stand up for loyal workers in Britain being undermined by overseas billionaires.”

A petition started Friday, calling on Johnson for government intervention to reverse the decision, had garnered nearly 18,000 signatures by midday.