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P&O Ferries Faces Government Action with Services Still Suspended

Two weeks on from sacking almost 800 crew without notice, most P&O Ferries services remain suspended.  It has been reported that all but one of the affected former P&O workers accepted their redundancy settlement ahead of the two-week deadline.

P&O Ferries’ original plan to resume services within days has stalled as a number of its vessels have still not been approved to sail.  Two ships, EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY and PRIDE OF KENT have failed inspections by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).  A third, PRIDE OF HULL, has been prevented from sailing by the Dutch authorities.

While EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY failed on her Port State Control (PSC) inspection, necessary to re-enter service, PRIDE OF KENT failed a more basic inspection required just to allow her to move to a different location.  Other vessels have yet to be fully inspected, though EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER passed an inspection to allow her to relocate from Cairnryan to Larne.

P&O Ferries' EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER (l) and EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY seen tied up together at Larne, 31 March 2022. Image: © Steven Tarbox.
P&O Ferries’ EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER (l) and EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY seen tied up together at Larne, 31 March 2022. Image: © Steven Tarbox.

Dover Services Suspended for Another Half Month?

Contrary to P&O Ferries’ previously stated intention to resume services within days, it is understood that the company will not now resume operations on its Dover – Calais and Larne – Cairnryan routes until well after next week.  P&O Ferries has now informed customers with bookings on the Larne – Cairnryan route that it does not plan to resume sailings until 12 April. 

Dover services look to be suspended even longer, with P&O not presently taking any bookings before 19 April. As before, P&O’s freight-only services from Tilbury and Teesport continue to run as they use exclusively chartered tonnage

P&O Liverpool Services To Reduce?

It remains to be seen how long it will be before services return to normal capacity, but before then sailings on P&O Ferries’ Liverpool – Dublin route look to be getting reduced further.  The chartered Ro-Ro vessel STENA FORECASTER, one of three ships currently in service on the route, is expected to go off charter in the next few days.  ‘Forecaster’s next assignment will be to cover the dry docking of sister-ship STENA FORETELLER on Stena Line’s Birkenhead to Belfast route. 

STENA FORECASTER. P&O Ferries.
STENA FORECASTER. P&O Ferries.

P&O Ferries’ own NORBAY remains out of service having not yet passed MCA inspection with her new crew, though it is understood this inspection is due imminently.  This potentially leaves the Dublin route in the hands of her Dutch and Filipino crewed sister-ship NORBANK and the chartered Ro-Ro CLIPPER PENNANT. 

In the meantime, replacement crews continue to conduct drills and training aboard P&O Ferries vessels around the UK and elsewhere in anticipation of an eventual return to service.

Competitors Fill the Gap

In the meantime, other ferry companies have moved to fill the gap left by P&O.  Most notably, Stena Line moved STENA NORDICA to the Belfast – Cairnryan route as a third vessel due to extremely high demand after the suspension of P&O’s competing Cairnryan – Larne route.  This has now led to the suspension of Stena’s Fishguard – Rosslare route so that its ship, STENA EUROPE, can cover for STENA NORDICA as the relief vessel on the Holyhead – Dublin route. 

STENA NORDICA (L) and STENA SUPERFAST VIII meet in Belfast Lough, 31 March 2022. The former has been temporarily redeployed to the Cairnryan to Belfast route following the suspension of P&O Ferries services. Image: © Steven Tarbox.
STENA NORDICA (L) and STENA SUPERFAST VIII meet in Belfast Lough, 31 March 2022. The former has been temporarily redeployed to the Cairnryan to Belfast route following the suspension of P&O Ferries services. Image: © Steven Tarbox.

At Dover, DFDS is experiencing extremely high load factors.  DFDS has a space sharing agreement with P&O Ferries on the Dover – Calais route, but as P&O Ferries’ ships are not sailing, this has been suspended.  The third operator on the route, Irish Ferries, is also experiencing high load factors, as is Eurotunnel. 

CÔTE D'OPALE at Calais in November 2021. Image: Matt Sudders.
DFDS’s CÔTE D’OPALE at Calais in November 2021. Image: Matt Sudders.

Despite some of P&O Ferries ships moving about Dover Harbour in recent days, these ships have not yet been cleared to sail.  It is understood that these moves were for safety reasons due to predicted high winds in the area.

P&O Ferries Rotterdam to Hull route is still only being served by the PRIDE OF ROTTERDAM with sister-ship PRIDE OF HULL still out of service. DFDS’s Newcastle – IJmuiden (near Amsterdam) route has benefited as a result. At present, P&O Ferries isn’t taking bookings for PRIDE OF HULL until 19 April.

UK Plans to Stop Ferry Companies Paying Below Minimum Wage

Following the public and political outcry over P&O Ferries’ treatment of its staff, the UK Government has been under pressure to act.  This week, the Transport Secretary, Grant Schapps MP, announced a package of measures aimed at preventing ferry companies using UK ports from paying below the UK minimum wage.   

The announcement came after a refusal from P&O Ferries to reverse its decision to sack workers.  Moves have also been made to disqualify P&O Ferries’ CEO Peter Hebblethwaite from being a director in any UK company. 

P&O Ferries plans to pay replacement workers, sourced via agencies through a third party, an average of around £5.50 per hour.  As this is an average figure, in reality some workers could be paid much less.  P&O Ferries has been criticised before for already paying some foreign workers as little as £1.83 per hour.

Entire UK Ferry Industry to be Affected

Any UK government action is sure to affect more than P&O Ferries, however.  Although far from the only other shipping company paying staff below the UK minimum wage, Irish Ferries is thought to be particularly exposed to any change in wage legislation.  The company has previously been called out by unions for paying staff on all of its vessels as little as €6.47 per hour on tours lasting up to eight consecutive weeks. 

Irish Ferries ISLE OF INISHMORE approaches Dover Eastern Docks for the first time on the morning of Saturday June 19, 2021. Image: © George Holland.
Irish Ferries ISLE OF INISHMORE approaches Dover Eastern Docks for the first time on the morning of Saturday June 19, 2021. Image: © George Holland.

The Irish Government is considering taking similar measures to those proposed in the UK.  Other European countries, such as France, are also considering similar measures according to the statement by the UK Transport Secretary.

This means that all Irish Ferries services could potentially be affected, not just those serving the UK.  While Irish Ferries has maintained in the past that its employment practices allow it to remain competitive, on its Irish Sea routes competitors Stena Line and Seatruck Ferries are understood to pay their crews at or above the UK minimum wage.  Last year Irish Ferries introduced its low-cost crewing model to the Dover – Calais route, in direct competition with P&O Ferries flagship service.

Channel Islands operator Condor Ferries has also been called out in the past for employing crew at rates below UK minimum wage. The RMT union has increased pressure on the company by renewing criticism of its employment practices in recent days. Condor has an effective monopoly on Channel Islands ferry services from the UK.  In other areas of shipping, such as cargo transport and passenger cruises, low wages are even more common

Condor Ferries COMMODORE CLIPPER is the closest BEN-MY-CHREE has to a sister-ship. Condor Ferries.
Condor Ferries’ COMMODORE CLIPPER. Image: Condor Ferries.

However, in a response to UK Government demands to rehire its former crew, P&O Ferries has said that most of the savings from its unprecedented action will be from new working practices and efficiency increases rather than reduced pay rates.  

“It Is important to emphasise that most of the anticipated savings arise from the removal of job duplication and the benefits of increased flexibility, not from reducing wages”

P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite in a letter to the UK Secretary of State for Transport dated 29 March 22

Notably, the company was already forced to pay UK minimum wage on the Cairnryan – Larne route due to existing legislation governing pay on UK domestic shipping.  Despite the introduction of this legislation in 2020, P&O Ferries has remained price competitive with competitor Stena Line on the Cairnryan route.  Stena Line already employed its seafarers at UK rates of pay.

P&O Ferries response to the UK Secretary of State for Transport's demand that the company reinstate its sacked workers. Image: P&O Ferries.
P&O Ferries response to the UK Secretary of State for Transport’s demand that the company reinstate its sacked workers. Image: P&O Ferries.

Competitors Welcome Proposals

Some ferry companies have welcomed the proposed measures as introducing a level playing field, with Brittany Ferries (which employees mostly French crew under French terms and conditions) and DFDS going so far as to put out public statements.  Other operators, such as Stena Line, which already employs a large number of local crew on wages above the minimum wage, are also understood to have welcomed any future minimum wage requirement.

An artist impression of one of P&O Ferries new-build double-ended ferries in operation. P&O Ferries.
An artists impression of one of two new ships which P&O Ferries has on order for the Dover – Calais route. P&O Ferries.

Separately, the U.K. Government has confirmed that formal criminal and civil investigations have been launched into P&O Ferries’ conduct.

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