The head of the trade union congress has written to the bankruptcy service calling for the disqualification of P&O ferry operators after they fired about 800 crew without notice.
In a letter from the Guardian, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said the bankruptcy service should “initiate disqualification proceedings against the directors of P&O Ferry Division Holdings Limited”.
The Insolvency Service confirmed last month that it had launched a “formal criminal and civil investigation” into the redundancy situation following an investigation at the government’s request.
The P&O ferries became embroiled in controversy when it immediately dismissed 786 workers on March 17, despite notifying any notices or unions required under company law. The Dubai-based company, which owns DP World, has instead said it will replace those employees with lower-paid agency employees.
One week later, Peter Heblathwaite, chief executive of P&O Ferry, admitted to surprised MPs that its managers had decided not to consult workers despite acknowledging “there is no doubt we needed to consult with the union”.
His testimony prompted lawmakers to ask if he was a “shameless criminal,” but he insisted he would “make that decision again.”
The government will closely monitor the bankruptcy service investigation, which says the company is unable to take direct action against P&O Ferry operators despite admitting to violating the law.
Boris Johnson initially promised to take legal action against the company in court, but a week later it emerged that this was not the case and that the government would rely on a bankruptcy service investigation instead.
In his letter, O’Grady wrote that there were three separate legal grounds for disqualifying Heblathwaite and his associate directors: failure to consult with the unions on dismissal; Failing in their duty to “consider the interests of their employees”; And failed to inform the flag status of the ship concerned. All three are legal responsibilities, he said.
“P&O Ferry operators have knowingly violated the law and acted against their trustworthy responsibilities in the interests of their employees. Mr Heblathwaite even said he would do the same thing again. Their company’s reputation has been tarnished, “O’Grady wrote.
Shadow Transport Secretary Lewis High said: “In the months since their shameless, criminal act, P&O officials have not faced any consequences. The government has promised to play well but has completely failed to keep track of them.
“If not, then the whole board should be removed to trample on the rule of law in this country.”
The government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) took the P&O ferries under detailed inspection, possibly out of concern for the “inexperienced crew”. The agency complained that the agency was working with “unprecedented levels of rigor” when several ships were prevented from sailing.
P&O Ferry now operates all its ships between Great Britain and Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands. Only on the busy Dover to Calais route – an important trade artery in the UK in which each ship crosses the channel up to 10 times a day – two of the four ships are still being inspected by the MCA.
The proposed law government said P&O and other ferry operators would ensure that they would pay the minimum wage to sailors as outlined during the Queen’s speech in early May. However, both the port operator and the TUC have expressed doubts about whether the proposed legislation will have any effect in practice.
Following public outcry over the dismissal, ministers confirmed in April that the DP would lose its status as a partner in World Solvent Freeport. However, DP World is still listed as a “partner” in Thames Freeport. Freeports pay lower taxes to businesses in the area in the hope of stimulating investment, but their benefits are questioned by many economists.
The directors of P&O Ferry Holding Company include Heblathwaite and five others, one of whom is listed as a resident of the United Arab Emirates and the other as a resident of Luxembourg.
P&O Ferry declined to comment. The government’s business and transportation departments also declined to comment, and the Insolvency Service said it was unable to comment while an investigation was ongoing.