Protests have been held across the country against P&O Ferries after its “appalling” decision to sack 800 seafarers as the company issued a fresh defence of its decision.
Demonstrations were held at ports in Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne in Northern Ireland and outside the London head office of owners DP World amid growing anger at the sudden sacking of staff with no notice.
Attempts are being made to replace them with cheaper agency workers, but the company is facing a backlash, including calls for a boycott of its services.
The UK Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, who joined the rally in Dover, described P&O’s actions as “nothing short of a national scandal”.
“This is a disgraceful way for a Dubai-based conglomerate to treat British workers in this country,” she told the PA news agency.
She added: “I will be taking action in Parliament next week to push the Government to take sanctions against P&O now, to push leverage on them, to force them to change course and if it’s not illegal… then we need to make sure it is immediately made so.”
In a new statement on Friday, P&O said: “We took this difficult decision as a last resort and only after full consideration of all other options but, ultimately, we concluded that the business wouldn’t survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements, which in turn would inevitably result in redundancies.
“We also took the view, in good faith, that reaching agreement on the way forward would be impossible and against this background, that the process itself would be highly disruptive, not just for the business but for UK trade and tourism.”
The company acknowledged that the sackings “came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families”.
The statement added: “The changes we’ve made bring us into line with standard industry practice.
“Our aim is to have the first of our services running again in the next day or two as we lose £1m a day for each day they are not moving.
“The teams escorting the seafarers off our vessels were totally professional in handling this difficult task with all appropriate sensitivity.
“Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force.”
Around 400 protesters gathered outside the Port of Liverpool, including metro mayor of Liverpool Steve Rotheram and Sefton Central’s Labour MP Bill Esterson.
Mr Rotheram said: “It’s an absolute disgrace that in this day and age a company, just overnight, can say, ‘That’s the end of your job. That’s the end of your loyal service. You’re sacked and you’ve got no right to appeal’.”
Protesters held flags and signs, including one which said: “Shame on you!! P&O stop the carve up.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband and Labour’s Hull East MP Karl Turner addressed a protest at the ferry terminal in Hull.
Dismissed staff with decades of experience working for P&O attended a rally at Larne to voice disgust at their treatment.
Downing Street said the Government is looking to see if P&O has broken any rules.
“We are looking very closely at the actions that this company has taken to see whether they acted within the rules,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“Once we have concluded that, we will decide what the ramifications are.
“Obviously there are a lot of valid questions in relation to existing contracts.”
He said companies should only make “extreme decisions to secure the future of their business if all other avenues have failed”, adding: “We don’t believe this was the case for P&O staff but we are looking into this very carefully.”
He added that senior officials in the Department of Transport were informed by the P&O chief executive on Wednesday evening of what the company was planning to do.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said there should be a widespread public and commercial boycott of the ferry giant until the jobs are reinstated.
It called on the Government to demand P&O reverses its decision and negotiates with the unions.
If this does not happen, the Government should use powers to take over the vessels, said the RMT, adding that ministers should remove any support for DP World, including future contracts.
General secretary Mick Lynch added: “The fact that the Government knew the day before that a foreign-owned company planned to cause major disruption to UK ports but did nothing to prevent it is shocking.”
P&O told passengers sailings will be suspended “for the next few days”.
Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden, when asked about calls for the transport company to be brought into public ownership following the sudden dismissals, said: “I’m not aware of any plans to do that at all.
“No, I don’t imagine we would do.”
Speaking to reporters at a Blackpool tram depot during his party’s spring conference, Mr Dowden added: “But what we are looking at is to find out how these pretty sharp practices, as appears to be the case, what exactly is going on and how that came about and what we need to do in response.”