‘People are at the heart of the maritime industry and the way P&O is treating its staff and customers is a betrayal of that principle,’ says Mersey Maritime chief executive Chris Shirling-Rooke. Tony McDonough reports
One of the leading figures in Liverpool city region’s £4bn maritime sector says the way P&O has treated its staff and customers in the past 24 hours is appalling.
Chris Shirling-Rooke, chief executive of industry body Mersey Maritime, was speaking as demonstrations at ports including Liverpool got under way following Thursday’s decision by P&O to make 800 staff redundant via video link.
P&O, which operates routes including Liverpool to Dublin and Dover to Calais, insisted the move was necessary to save the business which it claims is haemorrhaging cash. It has reported annual losses of £100m and said it had to be bailed out by its owner Dubai-based DP World, which bought the business for £322m in 2019.
However, the fallout from the decision has been significant. P&O said on Thursday evening that its services will not be running over the next few days. On Friday, two of its vessels Norbank and Norbay remained berthed in Gladstone Dock in the Port of Liverpool.
A third vessel that works the Liverpool to Dublin route, was in Liverpool Bay on Friday afternoon heading for Dublin although it is not clear whether it was carrying any freight or passengers.
Seafarers unions, RMT and Nautilus have reacted with outrage and have pledged to fight the move. They described it as a “dark day” in the shipping industry. MPs across all parties have described the company’s actions as “callous” and “disgraceful”.
And condemnation is now coming from within the normally tight-knit maritime industry. Mersey Maritime represents hundreds of businesses in the maritime sector. Mr Shirling-Rooke says the industry has been working flat out to transform its culture and said this decision had come as a shock.
He added he was dismayed by P&O’s decision which he feels is a betrayal of its previous commitment to the Government’s Maritime 2050strategy, which seeks to set the tone for the UK maritime sector in the next three decades.
Mr Shirling-Rooke told LBN: “People are at the heart of the maritime sector and they are at the heart of the Maritime 2050 strategy. We’ve all signed up to it and made that commitment. So to see P&O treat its own people, many of them dedicated and experienced seafarers, in this way is hugely disappointing.
“People are losing their jobs, their livelihoods. Seafarers were among the heroes of the pandemic. They put themselves at risk to ensure our country stayed supplied. 95% of our imported goods arrive by sea. They play a critical role and this is a slap in the face.
“But it’s more than that. The way P&O have treated their customers in the middle of all this – disrupting vital supplies of food and medicines and all the other goods that move back and forth – is just shocking.
“Services are now going to be disrupted for days. The knock-on effect to companies and people in the supply chain is going to be significant.”
Both the RMT and Nautilus are taking legal advice on the legitimacy of P&O’s decision. Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus, told the BBC: “It’s absolutely ripped the guts out of everybody.
“I’ve seen some curveballs and some shocking developments over that time (40 years in the industry) … but for a company to treat the legal process in such an underhand and callous way has shocked me.”
Maritime minister Robert Courts said he was “frankly angry at the way workers have been treated”. He told the House of Commons P&O Ferries’ actions were “wholly unacceptable”.
“Reports of workers being given zero notice and escorted off their ships with immediate effect while being told cheaper alternatives would take up their roles, shows the insensitive nature by which P&O approached this issue,” he said.