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P&O redundancies: RMT's fears for ferry safety, financial security of staff and economic strain on towns as job cuts loom

Compromised ferry safety, a financially insecure workforce and a dramatic knock-on effect in our town centres is predicted amid P&O's ongoing redundancy plans.

That's the belief of the RMT union's national secretary Darren Procter who revealed workers on the Dover to Calais route have already seen a rise in traveller demand that isn't being met because the company has stopped too many sailings.

P&O Ferries, based in Dover, have announced plans to make over 1000 people redundant..Picture: Barry Goodwin
P&O Ferries, based in Dover, have announced plans to make over 1000 people redundant..Picture: Barry Goodwin

This week the union repeated earlier calls for workers to be kept furloughed instead of made jobless until the company can assess true passenger volumes once lockdown restrictions are eased.

He also forecasts more interest in holidays to France from July where ferries are thought to be the safest form of travel for our new socially distanced era.

When lockdown was announced in March, P&O Ferries laid off seasonal staff and furloughed 1,400 ratings in two rounds while igniting outrage for paying its shareholders $322million from 2019's profits.

It reduced its Dover to Calais operation from five to three ships to keep freight moving before announcing 1,100 redundancies from across the business.

Mr Procter now feels Dover needs a four ship operation and said: "If you need three when there's a pandemic on with limited movement, you're going to need more after."

The company already had an intention of making 20% savings before the pandemic and it now claims the restructure is to make the business "right sized" for the future.

RMT National secretary Darren Procter. Picture RMT
RMT National secretary Darren Procter. Picture RMT

But Mr Procter warned cutting trained ratings back too much too soon could lead to a shortage of trained seafarers. And where UK employment law prohibits the re-hiring of redundant staff within a year, P&Omight have to look to agency workers from foreign countries to fill the staffing void if the travel industry recovers beyond the company's expectations.

P&O which has responded in part to our questions, has previously said UK jobs will make up the mainstay of the workforce on the Dover to Calais route but is understood it seeks to employ some foreign workers in the North Sea at Hull.

The RMT's wage figures for P&O's foreign ratings in 2017 reveal able seamen (ABs) from Poland, Latvia and Portugal earned as little as £1.75 per hour on the Irish Sea, while Portugese, Brazilian and Filipino ABs sailing from Hull earned $4.45 an hour.

This sparks concerns for the financial security of the company's workers into the future.

But P&O Ferries disputes these figures and says they are paid £4.50 per hour and the company has already raised this discrepancy with the RMT. Workes also have the benefit of free accommodation and food, some, for example Filipino workers, stay on board for rotations of six months on, two months off on the Hull to Rotterdam route.

Meanwhile uncertainty over the standard of training for foreign ratings adds to safety concerns that were already raised when P&O switched the registration of its vessels to the flag of Cyprus from January 2019.

Mr Proctor explained the phased flagging out of the ships allows for "minimum standards" across the fleet.

"We don't need to be reminded about tragedy in this corner of the world..."

"We call it a flag of convenience - convenience to the company and its profits, not to the staff and their safety," he said.

He made assurances that so far, regulations have not been changed to a level that would compromise safety, but he alluded to the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise disaster saying "We don't need to be reminded about tragedy in this corner of the world."

The union believes the long term loss of passenger trade will lead to a devastating knock-on effect for employment and commerce in Dover.

This will affect the taxis picking passengers up at the port and places in the town where they would spend their money like bars, cafes, fuelling stations.

The redundancy consultation ends in less than two weeks on June 24.

The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster led to drastic safety reforms but fears have surfaced for staff and passenger safety amid P&O Ferries' plan to cut 614 jobs on Dover ships.
The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster led to drastic safety reforms but fears have surfaced for staff and passenger safety amid P&O Ferries' plan to cut 614 jobs on Dover ships.

Four unions affected are the RMT for seafarers, the GMB for port staff, officers' union Nautilus and Unite.

Their negotiating team has been meeting every Wednesday for virtual calls with company bosses and have asked for more constructive and meaningful outcomes.

P&O Ferries has been asked to comment on complaints made on twitter at the weekend about delays caused by increased demand not being met.

A spokesman said: “We would like to apologise sincerely to any customers who were inconvenienced by the delays at Calais over the weekend. The situation was caused by high levels of demand coinciding with the introduction of Government’s quarantine policy and reduced capacity, with only three ships in operation compared with five prior to the crisis and volumes significantly restricted due to coronavirus safety measures including social distancing. We stopped selling tickets as soon as it became clear that there were more people attempting to travel than we had room for. We eased the backlog by running an additional sailing and the situation at the port is now back to normal.”

The RMT's general secretary Mich Cash has launched a petition against P&O's job cuts. Read about it here.

P&O Ferries has also been asked what their long term strategy is to meet a rise in demand, and whether they are preparing a marketing strategy to attract a boost in passenger traffic for what is deemed the most covid-secure mode of travel. The company declined to comment.

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