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P&O Ferries: Will British agency staff ever trust the maritime sector again?

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Crew Inspections Have Started On P&O Ferries As Airlines Step In To Recruit Redundant Staff

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency will be carrying out inspections before any of the eight P&O Ferries affected by the mass redundancies of 800 employees on 17 March 2022 set sail, an agency spokesperson has told The Freelance Informer.

“Some of our surveyors are at the moment on board the P&O Ferries Pride of Hull doing just that. The other seven will also be inspected before they go out. This is to make sure they comply with international regulations on manning and safe operation, in particular, emergency procedures such as firefighting and evacuating the ship.

“The inspection will focus on operational drills (i.e. the ability of the crews to fight fire, muster passengers in the case of an emergency and evacuate a ship) and ensuring that personnel have received appropriate training and familiarisation in the tasks for which they have responsibility. 

P&O Ferries Norbank and Pride of Rotterdam are not affected by last week’s action and continue to operate as normal.  

However, it was reported that the Pride of Hull departed from King George Dock at approximately 7.48pm on Wednesday night set sail for Europoort in Holland. It is not believed to be carrying paying passengers or cargo and is now crewed by its new agency staff.

For those wondering, P&O Cruises, which has been part of Carnival Corporation & plc for over 20 years, has no connection to P&O Ferries. 

“Our thoughts go out to all those affected. However, please be assured it’s business as usual on our cruises and our crew look forward to welcoming you onboard soon,” said the holiday cruise carrier.

Airlines step in to recruit laid-off P&O staff

In a show of solidarity, several airlines operating in the United Kingdom have offered priority recruitment to the affected employees, it has been reported.

Airlines including easyjet, Eastern Airways and Wizz Air UK have all stated that they will be actively looking to recruit P&O staff.

Low-cost carrier easyJet said it was fast-tracking applications for UK Cabin Crew roles from P&O Ferries employees. 

In an Aeurotime Hub report Tina Milton, Director of Cabin Services for easyJet said:

As part of our ongoing recruitment drive we still have fantastic seasonal cabin crew opportunities across our UK network, along with a number of roles at our London Luton Airport headquarters and our recruitment team will be reaching out to as many individuals as possible, to encourage them to apply.

We know that P&O Ferries’ people will be a valuable addition to our easyJet team and we would be delighted to welcome many of them onboard with us in the coming weeks.

P&O staff that are now looking for work were shocked to hear that migrant worker staff have been brought in to replace them, some making no more than £3 an hour. But this revelation has been going on before the recent mass redundancy exercise according to a report by Hull Live.

According to the report, a local Labour MP has claimed that P&O Ferries had previously hired agency workers for as little as £1.82 an hour meaning some had to live in tents.

According to the report, Hull East MP Karl Turner said that the migrant workers were expected to work 12-hour shifts for eight weeks at a time.

Editorial partner, ETZ has reported on the murky area of maritime recruitment in this special report below, highlighting where P&O Ferries went wrong from a legal perspective:

Sacked by video and seen off by balaclava-ed security men

The practices of the shipping industry have a reputation for being opaque. It is not uncommon for a vessel to be owned by a shipping business domiciled in Greece, registered in and flying the flag of Panama, and is operated by a crew from a low-cost labour economy such as the Philippines. And the scrapping of some vessels that are no longer seaworthy, in crude and inappropriate conditions that carry environmental as well as health and safety risks, in countries such as India leave a lot to be desired.

There has been widespread outrage and condemnation over the actions of P&O Ferries in making mass redundancies of 800 employees on 17 March 2022. The methods used to inform the affected workers and then remove them from the vessels while on shift saw them sacked via a video recording and then escorted off by balaclava-ed security men.

The role of specialist maritime recruitment agencies have been repeatedly mentioned in the unfolding story. The two recruitment businesses, one based in Glasgow with offices in Poland and Latvia, and the other in Cyprus, have been reported as supplying agency workers to replace the permanently employed crew members.

Action to save the business and 2200 other jobs – but is it legal?

The background is that P&O Ferries, which is owned by Dubai-based DP World, has sustained year-on-year losses of £100 million and was forced to act to save the business and the jobs of 2,200 other employees. In the aftermath, sailings are suspended for 10 days and the travel itineraries of passengers and lorry drivers booked with the company are now in disarray.

With the smooth flow of goods in and out of the UK bound up in red tape and extra costs since Brexit, supply chains are already affected. P&O Ferries’ operations are responsible for the transit of 15 percent of all freight into the UK, as well as a third of all freight in and out of France. This is likely to increase inflationary pressure yet further due to shortages of some foodstuffs.

According to one minister, the government is powerless to stop P&O’s sackings, and it may seem like sharp practice. However, the opinion of legal experts is that the actions taken to effect the redundancies contravene UK employment laws. This is because notification of mass sackings is only mandatory where the ships are registered.

P&O’s millionaire boss Peter Hebblethwaite has insisted that the company did not break UK labour laws because the ships are registered outside of Britain – in this case, Cyprus and the Bahamas, said a Daily Mail report.

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 was amended by statutory instrument in February 2018, said the report.

The change signed off by Tory Minister Chris Grayling states: ‘[If] the employees concerned are members of the crew of a seagoing vessel which is registered at a port outside Great Britain… the employer shall give the notification required… to the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered (instead of to the Secretary of State).’

  • Consultation – The UK law states that when dismissing more than 20 employees you must consult with them. The larger the number being dismissed, the longer the consultation should be, anything up to 45 days.
  • Notify government – Employers wishing to make more than 100 redundancies must notify the business secretary at least 45 days in advance of those dismissals. On the afternoon of the redundancies, 10 Downing Street said no notice was given. Such a failure to notify the secretary of state is a breach of the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Many leading companies see a cultural commitment to high standards of welfare and working conditions for employees as a cornerstone of successful operations. The actions of P&O Ferries may be one way to operate a business and treat staff, however for many, it may not seem like a very good look.

Sea transportation carries a significant risk and customer trust in the highest safety standards is an absolute necessity. The safety of vessels with ‘fired and rehired’ agency sourced crews have been called into question by some, as they may lack the experience required to navigate the English Channel, the world’s busiest sea route.

The shipping industry tends to be a tight-knit community, but there is no suggestion that the specialist maritime recruitment agencies involved knew the redundancies might be controversial. However, the adverse publicity and reputational damage that results from such high profile events is unwelcome for any recruiter. In short, the takeaway for recruitment agencies is that any association with the breaking of employment law should be avoided at all costs.

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