The public image of workforce management priorities took a hit and policies came under scrutiny this month after UK ferry operator P&O Ferries on March 17 replaced 800 staff — the entirety of its UK seafaring staff — with agency crew. The sudden move has been met with widespread condemnation from unions, lawmakers and customers, The Guardian reported.

As of this writing, Ferry operator P&O said it is paying £36.5 million to cover compensation for the displaced workers, according to The Guardian.

Staff were told by P&O to discharge passengers and freight before receiving a video message telling them P&O “vessels will be primarily crewed by a third-party crew provider. Your final day of employment is today,” according to The Guardian.

When workers refused to accept the decision, private security staff with handcuffs, believed to have been hired by the Dubai Royal Family-funded company, reportedly removed workers from the ships in Dover, Kent, and in Larne, near Belfast.

Replacement agency workers, believed to have been recruited in the UK and Europe and less expensive than traditional staff, had already boarded some vessels in Dover on the same afternoon as the dismissals.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union reported Indian agency workers hired to replace P&O Ferries crews in Dover, UK, are being paid £1.81 an hour, even lower than earlier reports claimed. RMT said the low pay was a “shocking exploitation” and “a betrayal of those who have been sacked.” BBC News reports that P&O said the figure was inaccurate but said it could not comment on how much agencies pay workers on ferries. Some of P&O’s ferries are registered in Cyprus, meaning they do not have to pay the minimum wage required by UK law.

Difficult decision handled poorly

The staffing change and the way it was handled may end up being more costly to the company in the long run and provides a lesson in what not to do.

Maritime staffing is a thriving niche segment of the staffing industry. Unlike other staffing segments, maritime staffing agencies may not participate in staffing associations that encourage best practices. Therefore, it is up to the contingent workforce managers to ensure changes are made in a fair and equitable manner to avoid situations like the one P&O finds itself in and also keep their organization’s reputation as a desirable employer intact — especially these days when skilled niche talent is increasingly difficult to find.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said it had to make a “very difficult but necessary decision” to “secure the future viability of our business, which employs an additional 2,200 people, and supports billions in trade in and out of the UK.”

P&O Ferries was not a viable business in its current state, the spokesperson said. “We have made a £100 million loss year-on-year, which has been covered by our parent [company] DP World. This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now.”

However, unions and members of parliament have slammed the decision to dismiss the 800 staff, and protests have brought key ports to a standstill and plunged the service into chaos.

“We are receiving reports that security guards at Dover are seeking to board ships with handcuffs to remove crew so they can be replaced with cheaper labor,” said RMT Union General Secretary Mick Lynch said. “We are seeking urgent legal action and are again calling for the government to take action to stop what is fast turning into one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations. If this happens at P&O it can happen anywhere and we are calling for mass trade union and wider public mobilization and protest against the company.”

“This is a shocking move from P&O that should not be tolerated,” said Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, which represents workers from all sectors in Britain and Ireland. “Unite sends its solidarity to the seafaring crew, whose service as key workers during the pandemic has quickly been forgotten by P&O.”

In addition, employment lawyers warn that P&O may have broken several laws.

“If P&O breached the law they must suffer severe consequences – with ministers increasing the legal penalties if necessary,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. “If one employer gets away with this, every worker is at risk.”

The Labour party said it will force an emergency vote in parliament to demand the government take action to outlaw the so-called fire and rehire of staff after the workers were let go on the spot. Labour has also urged the business secretary to launch legal action against P&O Ferries over its decision to sack the 800 workers without warning, which the party said is a criminal offense.