The mass sackings of hundreds of P&O workers has sparked a “race to the bottom” among ferry operators as it emerged a second firm could also be considering sacking its crew and replacing them with cheaper agency workers. It means if Boris Johnson fails to reverse P&O’s shock dismissal of 800 staff, thousands more British jobs could be put at risk, according to union leaders.
It came as the ferry company DFDS, which employs 2,700 crew members, lorry drivers and office staff in the UK, told Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, that it would be unable to compete if P&O’s move to pay wages as low as £5.50 an hour were not challenged and overturned. According to The Mirror, the Danish firm has demanded a “level playing field” to prevent it being forced to sack UK staff on its cross-Channel services and to bring in overseas workers on rates way below the minimum wage.
A spokesman for the company, which runs ferry services from Dover, Newhaven and Newcastle, said: “DFDS has written to the Secretary of State asking for a meeting to discuss how a level playing field on the Channel can be achieved for an operator like DFDS, whose crewing model employs British seafarers directly.” They declined to comment on the possible implications for staff or the contents of the letter.
But Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT Rail, Maritime and Transport union, expressed concern for the future of the £8bn industry in the UK. He said: “P&O have kicked off a race to the bottom on our ships. And dithering by the Government over P&O’s illegal act is threatening more jobs at competitors and catastrophe for UK seafarers. We want guarantees from ministers the Government is taking steps to keep members’ jobs, collective bargaining arrangements and UK registration on the DFDS fleet.”
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister branded P&O’s actions illegal. And Mr Shapps said the Government would “make sure P&O do a U-turn”. But there were doubts over the power ministers had in forcing a reversal of the dismissals as the workers were registered abroad. Both Mr Johnson and Mr Shapps have also called on Peter Hebblethwaite, the shamed P&O chief executive officer, to resign after he admitted that the company had deliberately broken the law. He told shocked MPs at a joint select committee that the firm had no other option if it was to survive.
DFDS runs services from Dover, Newhaven and Newcastle to Amsterdam, Calais, Dunkirk and Dieppe. An industry insider said one option being considered by the firm would be to scrap the short-haul model of employment currently used on Channel crossings for a less stringent international shipping arrangement where employing cheaper agency staff was the norm.
Last night, Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “P&O has produced a blueprint for rogue employers to slash wages and the Tories have done nothing to stop them.” The Department for Transport declined to comment further than Mr Shapps’ promise of action.
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