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French union calls for government action over P&O sackings

This comes amid questions over why the company’s staff on French contracts retained their jobs 

An image of a P&O ferry arriving in Calais

P&O Ferries sacked 800 of its UK crewmembers with no notice last week Pic: Hans Geel / Shutterstock

One of France’s principal worker union federations has called for the French government to intervene over P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 UK crew members with no notice. 

Read more: P&O sacks 800 UK crew saying action was needed to remain ‘viable’

Read more: Planes, trains, ferries, Eurostar: eight France travel updates

The Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Force or FO) union said in a statement that it: “offered all its support to the crews fighting to retain their jobs.” 

It added that it “has for several years been demanding the establishment of minimum social standards for maritime services travelling to France, to fight against the cruel social dumping [tendency for employers to look to cheaper labour than is usually available] which is hitting the shipping sector.

“The FEETS FO [the union’s transport branch] is calling on the French government to intervene with P&O to protect maritime links between the UK and France which are respectful of minimum social standards. 

“Just like factories that are relocated overnight and behind employees’ backs, P&O’s methods are inadmissible. We cannot accept that 800 employees and just as many families have been sacrificed from one day to the next simply for the profit of the company. 

“Support for our comrades in P&O’s British unions.”

A memo sent to ministers by a senior Whitehall official said that the sackings aimed to ensure P&O’s place as a “key player in the UK market for years to come through restructuring,” and suggested that the company would try to rehire staff on new terms or use agency staff as replacements, the Sunday Times reports. 

P&O services suspended 

When the sackings first occurred, it was predicted that P&O crossings including the Dover-Calais service would be suspended for up to 10 days. 

Liverpool-Dublin sailings have resumed over the weekend, but Dover-Calais ferries are still not running. 

A message on the operator’s Twitter account tells passengers who had booked onto P&O crossings: “Once at the port please head to the DFDS check-in booths. We apologise for the inconvenience this may have on your journey plans.”

The Connexion has contacted P&O to ask when these services will be back up and running.

A Eurotunnel spokesperson told us: “We currently have capacity on our passenger service for anyone who needs to rebook a crossing whilst P&O are out of action and we would be delighted to carry them.” 

Did P&O breach UK employment law?

The Insolvency Service will investigate whether the company breached employment law by failing to consult with unions, staff and the government before making the announcement. 

Companies making more than 20 staff redundant within 90 days of each other are required under UK law to carry out a consultation process before making dismissals, while firms making more than 100 redundancies must tell the business secretary first. 

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng wrote to P&O on Friday (March 18) to inform it of the investigation, and asked it to explain “why you think these rules do not apply to you,” the Financial Times reports. 

P&O has told employees that it will be giving them “enhanced severance packages” in compensation for their lack of notice.

Why did French staff keep their jobs? 

P&O also employs UK office staff, as well as staff on contracts from Ireland, the Netherlands and France. 

None of these European-contract staff were affected by the redundancies, says the RMT union. The union has suggested that this may be because the UK’s employment law protection is weaker than that of other countries. 

This has led the Trades Union Congress to demand that the government push forward a new bill which would aim to strengthen workplace protections and increase the penalties served to employers which break the law.

“What happened at P&O is a national scandal – it can’t ever be allowed to happen again,” the general secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady said.

France’s Code du travail, for example, details several criteria which a firm must fulfil in order to make staff redundant, and none of these conditions would have been met in this instance. 

The Code also states that firing staff to rehire cheaper workers could give the original employees grounds for an unfair dismissal case, for which a court can award damages whose maximum amount is not specified.

In the UK, meanwhile, a bill aimed at blocking these ‘fire-and-rehire’ actions was rejected by the government in October 2021, with No.10 saying it wanted new guidance rather than a law. 

Labour MP Barry Gardiner called this decision “cowardly.” 

The Connexion has requested further information from P&O on the reasons why its French staff were kept on, but we have not yet received a response. 

A move denounced by UK politicians

The sackings, nearly a quarter of which happened via video-link on Thursday (March 17) with effect that same day, were met with condemnation from UK MPs and unions. 

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told the BBC yesterday that P&O’s actions were “awful” and “wrong,” adding that the government is examining the legality of the redundancies.

The UK government has also said that it will review its contracts with P&O, with Maritime Minister Robert Courts saying he was “frankly angry at the way workers have been treated” and that the ferry firm’s actions were “wholly unacceptable”.

Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh commented: “There are images circulating of what we are told are handcuff-trained security, some wearing balaclavas, marching British crew off their ships. 

“It is beneath contempt. It is the action of thugs.”  

The RMT union said that it was one of the “most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations.” 

A spokesperson for Brittany Ferries told The Connexion: “We are dreadfully sorry for all those who are affected by [these] decisions in Dover and beyond.”

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