What has P&O done?

On Thursday, 800 employees of P&O Ferries were shocked to discover via a pre-recorded video that they were to be sacked en masse. “I am sorry to inform you that your employment is terminated with immediate effect,” a P&O executive informed them.

Over the next 24 hours, what RMT general secretary Mick Lynch described as “one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations” would become a firestorm of controversy, as reports emerged of balaclava-clad private security arriving to clear crew members from P&O vessels.

What is P&O’s justification?

The company, owned by the Dubai-based multinational DP world, has blamed growing losses for its decision, saying: “We have made a £100 million loss year on year which has been covered by our parent, DP World. This is not sustainable.”

However, this justification has been questioned by Mark Dickinson of the union Nautilus International, who said: “It is nothing short of scandalous, given that this Dubai-owned company received millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic.”

Was it legal?

The question of the mass-firing’s legality has already become a vexed one. Speaking on Good Morning Britain, ITV travel expert Simon Calder commented: “The seafarers, because they were employed by a company based in Jersey, they were classed as international workers.

“So normal UK employment law – which of course would require the unions to be consulted – simply does not apply.”

Nevertheless, RMT have said they are seeking urgent legal action, while the firings have been described as “reprehensible and unlawful” by TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

O’Grady said: “When an employer lays off more than 100 staff at once they must consult workers and unions. And they are required to notify the Secretary of State in writing in advance too. The government must urgently explain what it knew and when.

“If P&O breached the law it must suffer severe consequences —with ministers increasing the legal penalties if necessary.”

What allowed this to happen?

The TSSA has described P&O’s actions as an example of "fire and rehire", a notorious practice by which workers are made redundant, only to be rehired on worse or less secure terms.

However, some have taken issue with that description, as P&O’s intention was not to retain the same workforce, but to replace them with cheaper agency workers.

In October 2021, the UK Government blocked a potential new law which would have curbed employers’ ability to use fire-and-rehire tactics, arguing there was “insufficient evidence to show legislation will stop the practice or be ineffective.”

Some have also attributed blame to Brexit, particularly after former Brexit Party MEP Nigel Farage commented that it was a “disgrace” that “cheap foreign workers” would replace P&O staff, saying: “Brexit was about putting our people first.”

Many responded by highlighting promises made by Leave campaigners that ending freedom of movement would prevent British workers from being undercut in this manner, as well as pointing out that no French P&O staff have faced similar redundancy.