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P&O Ferries Services Remain Suspended Following Wide Scale Sackings

Most freight and passenger P&O Ferries services remain suspended with bookings not being taken for services until at least Saturday. The suspension began ahead of the majority of the company’s crew, some 800 people, being made ‘redundant’ without notice last Thursday.

Services Continuing to Run

The freight-only routes from Teesport and Tilbury continued running as they use chartered tonnage with third party crew. A two-ship service using the existing chartered tonnage also continued running between Dublin and Liverpool.  They were joined by NORBANK, which is crewed through a Dutch P&O subsidiary and was off-service for maintenance, from Saturday.  Presently NORBAY is the only vessel out of service on P&O’s Liverpool to Dublin route.

Initially it was said that passengers and freight on all P&O routes have been transferred to other operators but space is running low.  However, later reports suggest that passengers are abandoned.  According to the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, travellers will likely be able to claim additional expenses and compensation as a result of P&O’s service suspension back from the company.

P&O Ferries continues to ship some freight between Dover and Calais using their space charter arrangement with DFDS, rather than their own tonnage. 

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

At Cairnryan and Belfast, Stena Line is running low on marshalling space for freight waiting to be shipped between the two ports.  There have been local reports that Stena Line has, at least at points, been using part of the P&O terminal at Cairnryan Harbour for trailer storage.  P&O usually handles a lot of supermarket traffic into Northern Ireland.

The suspension of services is a result of P&O ferries making 800 seafaring staff redundant without notice last week. All crew employed by P&O Ferries Jersey were made redundant, regardless of nationality.  They found out via a pre-recorded video message as security staff and replacement crew walked on to the vessels.  

P&O Ferries states that the changes are needed to make the company viable. The Sunday Times reports that employment costs started to really bite at P&O Ferries when Irish Ferries entered the Dover – Calais cross-channel market last June. Prior to this, past and present operators on the Dover Strait had an agreement with both the French and UK unions to pay U.K. minimum wage to their cross-channel staff. Irish Ferries, which had already gained a reputation for cost cutting due to making most of its Irish crew redundant in favour of Latvians in late-2005, refused to sign up to this agreement. The same Sunday Times article also suggests that Irish Ferries are undercutting P&O Ferries and DFDS on ticket prices. Around 600 P&O Ferries staff are thought to have been sacked on the Dover route.

Some Crew Remain

While the majority of seafarers made redundant were from the UK and Ireland, a number were also from Southern and Eastern European countries.  All passenger routes are affected by the redundancies and service suspension. 

Seafarers directly employed by P&O companies based in France and the Netherlands have not been affected by the company’s actions, however. It is understood that this is a relatively low number of staff in total, all of whom were protected by very tough employment laws in their countries. The French staff are thought to number a handful remaining from the Newhaven – Dieppe route in P&O Stena Line days. The Dutch staff originate from the Royal Dutch Nedlloyd involvement in North Sea Ferries, the impact today, being some officers aboard the NORBANK and PRIDE OF ROTTERDAM.  

Additionally, existing agency crew are unaffected. These include Romanian, Latvian and Filipino staff that work on the North Sea and Irish routes.

PRIDE OF HULL. P&O Ferries.
PRIDE OF HULL. P&O Ferries.

The move comes after P&O Ferries reflagged its Dover vessels from the U.K. to Cypriot flag in 2019.  These were the last remaining P&O Ferries ships with the Red Ensign, it having been removed on the Irish Sea and North Sea over a period of many years before. It should be stressed, however, that vessels flagged in the U.K. have no requirement to carry U.K. seafarers.  At the same time P&O Ferries moved employment contracts to a subsidiary based in Jersey.  

Crew Sacked Without Notice

Although people have made comparisons with the actions of Irish Ferries in 2005 when security personnel also boarded Irish Ferries vessels to enforce a redundancy process, one key difference is that Irish Ferries had consulted with unions and announced its intention to make staff redundant a number of months prior.  A voluntary redundancy offer of up to eight weeks pay for every year of service with the company had also been on the table as well.  The P&O action was taken without any previous notification or consultation according to the Rating RMT and Officer Nautilus unions.

P&O’s action was taken irrespective of the vessels the crew worked on, routes deployed, or their current status.  For example, most crew on SPIRIT OF FRANCE were made redundant even though the vessel is currently undergoing maintenance for a major mechanical issue. This included staff who were overseeing the work being carried out. 

Media and industry reports have suggested that staff were abandoned with no assistance of getting home.  Something which was also mentioned by Natalie Elphicke, MP for Dover in the House of Commons today. The MP claimed that staff from the SPIRIT OF FRANCE were told Eurostar tickets had been booked only to discover that no bookings existed and the staff were only returned to the UK thanks for the kindness of rival ferry company, DFDS.

On the Hull – Rotterdam route, PRIDE OF ROTTERDAM is unable to operate presently as PRIDE OF HULL is blocking the only suitable berth at Hull.  Like NORBANK, PRIDE OF ROTTERDAM is Dutch flagged and crewed by a Dutch P&O Ferries subsidiary.

Temporary Replacement Crew

Many of the replacement crew, at least on the Larne – Cairnryan route, seemingly mainly provided by Clyde Marine Recruitment, are from the UK and Ireland.  According to that company they are being paid at least the normal UK rates.  It is understood, however, that these crew are on temporary contracts . According to media and Union reports, a number refused to take up their roles when they learnt the nature of their assignment and others have walked since.

Clyde Marine Recruitment has claimed that it was unaware of P&O Ferries intentions or that the staff it was recruiting and supplying would be taking part in an action to remove existing crew.  Adverts had appeared from Clyde looking staff for a new Northern Ireland – Great Britain ferry service.

An advert for a Chief Officer, which has now been deleted, read:

“We have a requirement for RORO Chief Officers to join a vessel on a new venture, operating between the UK and Northern Ireland. Starting mid-March, a competitive day rate is on offer to the successful candidates. The vessel will carry 80 Freight units and 12 drivers. All candidates must have full STCW certification and either a Frontier Worker permit or the right to work in the UK. Trip lengths to be 4 weeks on/ 4 weeks off.”

https://www.clyderecruit.com/job/chief-officer-for-roro-new-venture/

It now transpires that this advert, and similar ones looking for crew for a new ferry sailing between the UK and Continental Europe, was used to recruit replacement crew for P&O Ferries.

Another recruitment agency, Columbia Shipmanagement, is known to be actively recruiting crew for P&O Ferries services.  NIFS understands that crew have been brought in from as far afield as India, with more to be added in the coming weeks.

The RMT has claimed P&O ferry crews at Dover have been replaced by Indian seafarers being paid 2.38 dollars an hour.

Commenting on the revelation RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said,

“The news that the seafarers now on ships in British ports are to be paid 2.38 dollars an hour is a shocking exploitation of those Seafarers and another gut-wrenching betrayal of those who have been sacked. 

“The rule of law and acceptable norms of decent employment and behaviour have completely broken down beneath the white cliffs of Dover and in other ports yet five days into this national crisis the government has done nothing to stop it.

“These ships of shame must not be allowed to sail. The government has to step in now and take control before it’s too late.”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/p-o-ferries-rmt-union-workers-sacked-b2040443.html

Attempts to Rehire 

A number of former crew are known to have been offered their old jobs back under new employers, sometimes at increased rates of salary, but under new terms and conditions.  According to media reports, some senior officers have been offered a bonus of around £20,000 to sign a new contract to work on P&O Ferries.  Such staff are primarily the vitally important PEC holders, working as Masters or Chief Officers who hold certificates allowing them to navigate in ports without supervision.  This bonus is payable once they have returned to the organisation for a year and is contingent on them applying to the terms of the redundancy settlement.

Several officers are known to have already joined other operators such as Stena Line.  DFDS has stated publicly that it is prepared to offer roles to some former P&O crew.  PROPEL is working with the leading UK ferry companies to facilitate rapid redeployment of P&O Ferries seafarers who have recently lost their jobs. 

Crew received their redundancy notice via email and courier.  The “enhanced offer” is only available to employees who comply with the requirements set out in a multi-page document and cooperate with P&O Ferries fully. The Secretary of State, Grant Shapps claimed that the staff have a narrow window to respond and must complete a non-disclosure agreement.

An image of the package received by a former P&O Ferries seafarer containing their redundancy pack. Image: NI Ferry Contributor.
An image of the package received by a former P&O Ferries seafarer containing their redundancy pack. Image: NI Ferry Contributor.

Crewing Difficulties

Presently there are no clear indications as to when any of the affected P&O Ferries services will resume.  Training an entire new crew to operate a ferry is no small task which usually takes weeks rather than days, and the ships will not be able to re-enter service until they pass inspection, including all relevant drills, by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.  The Government has confirmed that no re-crewed ship shall be allowed to sail without full checks by the MCA.

Recruitment for the U.K. domestic route between Larne and Cairnryan could be particularly difficult given restrictions on those permitted to work onboard domestic ferries in U.K. waters, particularly since the U.K. left the EU.  Crew on these ships must also be paid at least the U.K. minimum wage under recently introduced legislation.

Due to Russia’s War on the Ukraine, there is a limited seafarer market in Europe with the removal of Ukrainian and Russian labour.

Widespread Condemnation

P&O Ferries’ action has been condemned by politicians and business leaders alike for the sudden and brutal manner in which staff lost their jobs. Social media was awash with footage of the pre-recorded zoom message and security staff appearing onboard ships to remove sacked crew.   In a reputation destroying manner for P&O Ferries, this was later seen on TV screens and newspapers across the world.

The Northern Ireland Assembly had a debate on the matter on Monday with the Minister for the Economy promising to do all possible. 

Tweet showing a letter sent from the UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps MP to Peter Hebbelthwaite, CEO of P&O Ferries.

A Labour Party House of Commons motion on the matter was debated earlier today, featuring many angry speeches from MPs from all parties.

During the Commons debate, the Transport Secretary stated that Stena Line plans to add further additional sailings between Scotland and Northern Ireland from tomorrow.  The Ro-Pax ferry STENA NORDICA is expected to arrive in Belfast tomorrow and will sail in addition to the regular vessels on the Cairnryan – Belfast Route. The addition of ‘Nordica will allow Stena to offer an additional four sailings between Scotland and Northern Ireland on top of the twelve already timetabled.

There have also been extensive demonstrations organised by the RMT and Nautilus. Protests have been held at Hull, Dover, Liverpool and Larne. Further demonstrations are expected at all P&O ports this week, including at the Port of Cairnryan on Wednesday.

Summary of the Routes and Ships Affected by the P&O Ferries Service Suspension

RouteNormal ShipsNotes
Dover – CalaisSPIRIT OF BRITAIN
SPIRIT OF FRANCE
PRIDE OF CANTERBURY
PRIDE OF KENT
P&O Ferries flagship Dover – Calais route is currently suspended.  Freight is being accommodated on DFDS sailings where possible.
Hull – RotterdamPRIDE OF HULLTHe Dutch flagged and partially crewed PRIDE OF ROTTERDAM is currently out of service as PRIDE OF HULL is blocking the only suitable berth in Hull meaning that the route is currently totally suspended.
Cairnryan – LarneEUROPEAN CAUSEWAY
EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER
No shipments are currently taking place on the Cairnryan – Larne route.
Liverpool – DublinNORBAYFreight continues to be shipped on the Liverpool – Dublin route using the chartered ships CLIPPER PENNANT and STENA FORECASTER.  The Dutch flagged and partially crewed ship NORBANK returned to service on Saturday.
Table of routes and ships currently affected by P&O Ferries service suspension after the company sacked 800 seafarers
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