800 P&O Ferries workers fired suddenly last week are only being given redundancy pay on the condition they sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), according to the Transport Secretary.
Grant Shapps told the House of Commons that the company is using the agreements to try and “keep the employees quiet” while behaving in a “shameful and unacceptable way.”
One former employee who said he was willing to risk his pay-out to speak openly about what happened told Sky News the experience and subsequent treatment by P&O was an “utter disgrace”.
It comes as the RMT union that represents many of the fired staff claims that replacement seafarers have been hired from India on as little as $2.38 (around £1.80) an hour, well below the UK minimum wage.
P&O hasn’t addressed this claim directly, but a source close to the firm described it as “wholly inaccurate”. RMT has not provided proof of these claims, but ships involved are registered outside the UK and thus not bound by British minimum wage laws, so such action would theoretically be possible.
Meanwhile four days after all the firm’s seafaring staff were all let go with immediate effect, measures are being taken to prevent knock-on disruption on roads leading to the Port of Dover.
‘Operation Brock’, a movable barrier system which ensures traffic not heading to the port can be separated and kept moving, will be introduced overnight “as a precaution due to reduced ferry capacity at the Port of Dover.”
The action implies P&O services will remain suspended as fury over the handling of this case grows.
In an emergency parliamentary debate brought by the Labour Party politicians of all stripes poured scorn on P&O and its parent company DP World.
Grants Shapps said that the Insolvency Service is looking into the case, but if the relevant notice was not given and consultation not undertaken then this “would be a matter for criminal prosecution and unlimited fines.”
He also added that he’ll be calling for P&O to change the names of ships such as the ‘Spirit of Britain’ and ”The Pride of Kent’ if it transpires these ships are being manned by a predominantly foreign workforce.
The government has given P&O a deadline of Tuesday at 5pm to answer questions related to this action which will then “inform next steps”.
But Labour want to push through broader legal changes that will ban such “fire and re-hire” practices going forward.
Outside parliament, a protest of around 300 Union representatives, ex P&O workers and supportive members of the public gathered to call for just that.
They want to see the immediate re-hiring of the 800 staff involved in this case and argue that the current laws offer inadequate fines for unscrupulous companies, inadequate compensation for workers and a legal process that is too long and cumbersome.
“It has to be a turning point, otherwise it will be a race to the bottom and every single worker in Britain will be destabilised and insecure,” said Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT Union.
“We believe the government should intervene, take these vessels into their ownership and care, and start deploying people to run these operations. They do exactly that on the railways and they can do it with bus companies and other vital infrastructure links. This is a vital infrastructure link, the government has to intervene.”
The numerous ex-P&O staff at the protest spoke of their heartbreak and betrayal but few were willing to speak on record for fear of losing their severance packages. A couple cited the NDAs directly.
But John Lansdown was willing to speak up despite the potential consequences.
“I’m prepared to do what is right,” he said, adding: “there is a line called right and wrong and I know what side of that line that I’m on.”
John has worked for P&O on and off since he first joined as a 16 year old in 1998. He worked as a sous in one of the ship’s kitchens.
He was visibly upset and angry when he recalled watching the recorded video message from P&O management and described watching security guards board the ship to help escort staff off if necessary.
“It was the ultimate betrayal,” he said. “These are our homes, those ships, for half the year. We spend more time on there than we do with our own friends and family. We come on, we’ve been turfed out of our homes, we’ve been kicked out of our jobs, we’ve been humiliated. It’s an utter disgrace”
“This has upended my life, that of my family, families of all these other seafarers that have been dismissed in the most abhorrent of ways. And it’s not just that, it’s local economies as well, these port towns, some of them are really suffering already, they’re going to suffer more and more.”
He called on the CEO Peter Hebblethwaite to “have some self reflection”.
P&O Ferries has said that the action taken was necessary to save the company arguing that the business wouldn’t have remained “viable” without the changes. It maintains it acted in “good faith” and that it didn’t consult because finding a resolution would have been impossible.
The company made £100 million pounds in losses last year.