LONDON — A U.K. ferry operator owned by the government of Dubai faces a Tuesday deadline to explain why it fired 800 workers without notice, while British authorities say they may seek criminal penalties if the company is found to have acted illegally.
P&O Ferries fired the crew members over a Zoom call last week and then sent security teams onto ships to evict workers, touching off protests at ports around the U.K. Unions allege their members have been replaced by foreign workers who were hired through a third-party agency and are being paid $2.38 an hour.
The British government has notified P&O that the company appears to have violated rules requiring employers to consult with unions and notify authorities before laying off large numbers of workers. The government wants to know why the company believes the rules don’t apply to P&O.
“It’s important that we get the exact detail … and we need to collect it in one place, because there are criminal sanctions involved in this, including an unlimited fine,” Business Minister Paul Scully, who is responsible for labor issues, told Sky News.
British law requires employers to consult with labor unions and pay the legal minimum wage, now 8.91 pounds ($11.75) an hour for workers 23 and older. But maritime companies that sail in international waters can avoid these rules by registering their ships in other countries.
P&O Ferries serves ports in the U.K., Ireland, France and the Netherlands. It’s owned by worldwide logistics company DP World, a unit of government-owned Dubai World.
Lawmakers on Monday criticized the British government for failing to take action to stop the firings, even though it had advance warning of the company’s plans.
The Labour party’s spokeswoman on transport issues, Louise Haigh, said she had obtained a memo that showed the government was aware of P&O’s “game plan,” but the document expressed no concern about the action.
“This is the clearest proof that the government’s first instinct was to do absolutely nothing,” Haigh told the House of Commons.
Scully on Tuesday rejected this characterization, saying the government had no indication P&O planned to fire the workers without following correct procedures.
The government was told about the planned layoffs the afternoon before they occurred, but officials expected that would mark the start of the required consultation process, Scully said. P&O had followed the correct procedures during earlier layoffs, he said.
The government didn’t expect “the absolutely egregious situation that we’ve seen,” Scully said.