Sunak ignites union anger over treatment of P&O owner

Chancellor Rishi Sunak sparked union anger on Sunday after signaling ministers will allow the Dubai-based owner of P&O Ferries to continue investing in free ports in the UK even after laying off hundreds of employees.

Speaking of on the BBC sunday morningSunak described P&O Ferries’ decision to lay off 800 UK-based workers without notice as “appalling” and “terrible”, adding that the government was examining whether the company’s actions were in line with the law.

Asked whether the government would block Dubai-based and state-controlled logistics and shipping giant DP World from owning and operating free ports in the UK, Sunak suggested it be kept separate from the P&O controversy.

“I think there are two different things,” he said. “The P&O ferry situation is something we are actively looking at and as I said we are reviewing all government contracts with P&O to determine what the right next steps are.”

DP world has poured £2bn into UK economy, with a further £1.5bn earmarked for ‘further investment’.

The company operates the second and third largest shipping terminals in the UK at Southampton and London Gateway respectively.

Both ports are part of special economic zones, which Sunak has granted free port status. Freeports is still under construction and has not yet received any capital funding from the government.

“We are working urgently to establish the facts of what happened in this case and whether P&O or DP World are in breach of any of the requirements placed on them as partners in the Freeports Thames and Solent,” the government said.

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the Nautilus union, said he was “deeply disappointed to hear of this spineless government’s refusal to stop all dealings with DP World”.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said both P&O and DP World “have to set an example”.

“Any prospect of DP World ports being granted ‘free port status’ by the government must be stopped. And ministers should sit down with unions to review existing contracts with DP World and P&O Ferries,” she said.

The weekend is the Sunday times reported that a memo regarding the layoffs of Whitehall officials was written and circulated in some government departments ahead of Thursday’s announcement of the company’s mass layoffs.

According to the newspaper, the memo said that P&O Ferries had intended “to reinstate many staff on new terms or use agency staff to restart routes”. However, the move was justified by the fact that it would ensure that the company “remains a major player in the UK market through restructuring for years to come”.

P&O management could not say on Sunday when its main services will resume.

Unions said services between Liverpool and Dublin resumed on Saturday with Dutch-registered ships, but other routes, including the main artery Dover-Calais, remain suspended.

A former supervisory worker said he understood P&O had planned to resume its Dover-Calais service on Thursday when agency staff were conducting drills which will be assessed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

However, Dickinson said it was unlikely P&O would resume services any time soon as the operator is “losing agency staff” after some left following the controversy.

Unions and laid-off workers have also raised safety concerns on board P&O vessels due to the use of inexperienced workers.

A document provided to the Financial Times showed that three safety incidents involving agency workers from Clyde Marine Recruitment, one of the agencies used by P&O to replace laid-off workers, were reported in one day in July 2021. The MCA and Clyde Marine Recruitment did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The RMT union said it expects P&O to hire workers from India, Indonesia and the Philippines and pay below minimum wage. RMT General Secretary Mike Lynch said employees were being offered just $3.47 an hour.

P&O and DP World did not respond to requests for comment, but previously said the restructuring was necessary to keep the business going. Sunak ignites union anger over treatment of P&O owner

Adam Bradshaw

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