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News Item: UK taking P&O Ferries to court over mass sackings

The British government is taking P&O Ferries to court over its mass sacking last week of 800 workers, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, as the company apologised.

The loss-making ferry operator, owned by Dubai’s DP World, prompted outrage last Thursday when it told staff in a video-conference call that a quarter of company jobs were going with immediate effect.

Some staff refused to leave company property and even ships in dock, prompting extraordinary scenes of security guards scaling vessels to remove them.

Cancellations of services saw long tailbacks on roads leading to Channel ports, and angry workers have held protests, after unions said staff were told to reapply for their posts via agencies on lesser pay.

The government has criticised how news of the redundancies was broken to staff, although opposition parties alleged that cabinet ministers may have been warned that job losses were on the cards but did nothing to prevent it.

On Wednesday, P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite apologised and said he understood the “anger and shock” about the job losses.

The move was “an incredibly difficult decision”, he added, but maintained it was “the only way to save the business”.

Last week the company, which operates four routes serving Britain, France, Ireland and the Netherlands, said it was facing a £100 million ($131 million, 119 million euro) loss, making its business unviable.

– ‘Callous’ –

In parliament, Johnson called the company’s actions “callous”.

“I think that it is no way to treat hardworking employees and… we will not sit by because under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992 it looks to me as though the company concerned has broken the law.

“We will be taking action, therefore, and we will be encouraging workers themselves to take action under the 1996 Employment Rights Act,” Johnson said.

He added: “If the company is found guilty then they face fines running into millions of pounds.”

The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act states that employers wanting to make 20 or more employees redundant in less than 90 days have to hold talks with their staff representatives to either agree an alternative or avoid the job losses.

As part of the process, the employer has to inform the government at least 30 days before the first dismissal is due to take effect.

Failure to do so is a criminal offence and risks an unlimited fine for the company or its directors.

The Employment Rights Act covers areas such as unfair dismissal, termination of employment and redundancy payments.

The main opposition Labour party claimed that P&O Ferries, which was hit badly by the freeze on international travel during the coronavirus pandemic, received more than £38 million in government contracts since 2019.

It also called for DP World to be blocked from getting a further £50 million in state funding for the government’s freeports scheme — planned special economic zones near airports and seaports exempt from import tariffs.

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