UK passenger and freight shipping routes face days of disruption after P&O Ferries ordered its ships back to port in order to sack 800 sailors.
In a video message played to crew, the company said it would replace the dismissed workers with cheaper agency staff.
The company, which is owned by Dubai-based DP World, said Britain’s best-known ferry operator was not “a viable business” in its current state and that it had made the “very difficult but necessary decision” to axe the jobs.
As P&O sent in security staff to clear crew from their ships, the company was severely criticised by politicians and unions.
“The way [the crew] have been treated today is wholly unacceptable,” Robert Courts, transport minister, told MPs.
Karl Turner, Labour MP for East Hull, said P&O was engaged in “predatory capitalism of the most grotesque sort”, while Nautilus, the seafarers’ trade union, said there had been no consultation or notice given to staff, and that P&O’s actions were “nothing short of scandalous”.
P&O said that the 800 seafarers would be compensated for the short notice for job losses, without giving further details.
Cyprus-based Columbia Shipmanagement, one of the world’s largest ship managers, confirmed that it was among the agencies providing the replacement crew.
After initially forecasting delays of a few hours, P&O then admitted it would not be able to run any ferries “for the next few days”, plunging busy shipping routes into uncertainty.
Courts said he expected disruption for a week to 10 days while P&O trained new crew.
Rival ferry operator DFDS has stepped in and was providing alternative services for P&O passengers with tickets, he added.
P&O operates on the passenger and freight Dover to Calais route, as well as services between the British mainland and Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands.
The stoppage would cause a “massive problem” for British supply chains because the company is responsible for about a third of the cross-channel ferry market with France, said Philip Edge, chief executive of Edge Worldwide Logistics, a freight brokerage.
“It’s the equivalent of taking Maersk and another carrier out of the global container market but for the France to UK trade,” he said.
Fresh food such as croissants, brioches and cheeses that he imports were at risk of failing to make it to supermarket shelves. The flow of goods to Ireland would also be disrupted, he added.
John Manners-Bell, chief executive of Transport Intelligence, a consultancy, said the arrival of parts needed by manufacturers was also at risk.
Pointing to “long-planned contingency” arrangements for disruption on the Dover to Calais route, Courts said the government’s modelling “suggests we have sufficient capacity to handle the loss of these ferries”.
DP World, a container and logistics group, bought P&O Ferries for £322mn in 2019. It fired 1,100 workers early in 2020 as the pandemic struck. P&O reported revenue of £138mn for 2020, down from £145mn in 2019, according to its latest accounts at Companies House.
“We have made a £100mn loss year on year, which has been covered by our parent DP World,” P&O said. “This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.”
DP World itself last week reported record results for 2021, with ebitda increasing 15 per cent to $3.8bn.