P&O Ferries: why did it fire 800 staff, who owns company - and have Dover to Calais sailings restarted?

P&O Ferries fired almost 800 staff on the spot in March - a mass-sacking that led to UK-wide protests and holiday travel chaos at Dover

P&O Ferries fired nearly 800 staff on the spot on 17 March.

The mass sacking led to widespread protests and Easter travel chaos - particularly at the Port of Dover - while criminal and civil investigations have been launched into the controversial move by the ferry firm.

Public gaffes by the company’s CEO Peter Hebblethwaite have led to calls for his resignation from MPs, while a union boss has said Mr Hebblethwaite should be put “behind bars” for the mass sacking.

P&O Ferries has been heavily criticised for using fire and rehire tactics (image: Getty Images)

It has taken more than a month for the resumption of P&O Ferries services on the key route of Dover to Calais - a delay which has severely disrupted UK-EU trade.

So why did P&O Ferries cut so many jobs - and have services restarted?

Who owns P&O Ferries?

P&O Ferries is owned by DP World.

P&O Cruises is owned by a different corporation - Carnival - and therefore has nothing to do with the mass sacking.

P&O Ferries operates a key trade artery for the UK between Dover and Calais (image: AFP/Getty Images)

DP World is a Dubai-based logistics company.

It runs some of the biggest ports, terminals and economic zones in the world, including London Gateway.

According to Reuters, DP World bought P&O Ferries for £322 million in February 2019 having previously owned it between 2006 and 2009.

It sold the company to its major shareholder - UAE state holding company Dubai World - in 2009.

Why did P&O Ferries fire 800 staff?

P&O Ferries cancelled all of its services “for a few days” on 17 March as it announced a major restructuring of its operations.

It said its business was no longer “viable” and that it therefore needed to fire 786 seafarers to guarantee its “future viability” - announcing the move to shocked staff via Zoom.

The company pointed to a £105 million loss it made in 2020 as a major factor in its decision - although the loss was covered by its owner DP World.

In its accounts for 2020, P&O Ferries said Covid-19 had significantly dented its business.

Passenger numbers plummeted from 7.8 million in 2019 to just 2.7 million in 2020, with freight crossings falling from 2.1 million to 1.95 million in that time.

P&O Ferries workers have protested against their sudden firing (image: PA)

However, the accounts said there had been “signs of recovery” in 2021.

A company insider told the PA news agency P&O Ferries conducted a study in 2021 that calculated it would cost £309 million to keep the business afloat while consulting with staff over job losses.

In a statement released on the day of the sackings, P&O Ferries said there was “no future” for the business without “swift and significant changes”.

Several P&O Ferries were stopped from sailing over safety fears after it sacked seafarers and replaced them with agency workers (image: Getty Images)

P&O Ferries turned to cheaper agency workers after firing 786 staff - a move that prompted safety fears and led to four of its boats being detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Three of these boats are now back at sea.

On 25 April, P&O rejected allegations reported by the BBC from the RMT Union that it had tried to get agency staff to agree to even lower wages.

Dover, a port that’s become no stranger to lorry queues since Brexit, saw heavy disruption on Thursday (image: PA)

The Government reacted furiously to the P&O Ferries sackings.

On 28 March, a letter from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite said the action had left “the reputation of P&O Ferries and, I’m afraid, you personally in tatters”.

Both Mr Shapps and the Prime Minister Boris Johnson have called on Mr Hebblethwaite to resign.

In the Queen’s Speech on 10 May, the government revealed plans to require ferry operators who regularly call into UK ports to pay their seafarers the equivalent of the UK minimum wage, or face being fined or banned from docking in the country.

Protests against P&O Ferries’ mass-sacking are ongoing at ports across the UK (image: Getty Images)

The plans are set to be consulted on with the sector over the next month.

The TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady described the proposals as “feeble and unworkable” and called for “stronger employment legislation that boosts worker protections and stops companies firing on the spot”.

Meanwhile, Richard Ballantyne, chief executive at the British Ports Association, said ports do not have the “core competency” to enforce the minimum wage and called on the government to make it the responsibility of HMRC or the MCA.

P&O Ferries’ Spirit of Britain ship is the only boat it can currently run between Dover and Calais (image: PA)

“Ports facilitate the safe and efficient movement of ships, goods, passengers and maritime activities, safely and efficiently, they are not regulators,” he told the A news agency.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged the Government to go further and cancel a £50 million freeports contract it has awarded to P&O Ferries' owner, DP World.

Ministers said such contracts are under review.

Are P&O Ferries services running?

Full P&O Ferries services have resumed between Liverpool and Dublin and Hull and Rotterdam.

The Cairnryan, Scotland to Larne, Northern Ireland route got back underway on 24 April.

P&O Ferries’ Dover to Calais service took more than a month to resume, carrying its first freight passengers on 26 April and the first tourists on 3 May.

P&O Ferries vessels are still tied up in ports around the UK (image: Getty Images)

However, the route has a much-reduced capacity as the company can only use its Spirit of Britain ship.

Two other cross-Channel boats - Pride of Canterbury and Spirit of France - have not been inspected by the MCA, while the Pride of Kent remains out of action as it has failed four inspections by the public body.

What did P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite tell MPs?

On 24 March, P&O Ferries’ gaffe-prone chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite was grilled by MPs on the Transport Committee and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

He apologised to everyone impacted by the sackings, but also admitted the business had broken UK employment law.

Mr Hebblethwaite said there was "absolutely no doubt" that P&O Ferries was required to consult unions before sacking so many staff.

He also revealed new agency staff were being paid below the UK’s national minimum wage, with average hourly pay sitting at just £5.50 per hour - although he said this was “paying above” International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) standards.

The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and over is £9.50 per hour.

After the grilling by MPs, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Mr Hebblethwaite’s admission of using loopholes and “knowingly breaking the law” were “brazen and breathtaking, and showed incredible arrogance”.

Mr Hebblethwaite has since hit out at what he labelled “misinformation” about P&O Ferries and has revealed he hopes to “survive” in his role.

Speaking at the Shippax Conference on 6 May, the CEO said P&O Ferries had “not conducted ourselves on the day, or since, in anything like the way that has been suggested of me and us.”

He also described the future for P&O Ferries as “very exciting”.

However, Martyn Gray, executive officer at trade union Nautilus International, said Mr Hebblethwaite and the board of the company were “all at sea”.

“They not only treated their crew with contempt but demonstrated disdain for the rule of law of this country,” he said.