Private security guards have been dispatched to a P&O ferry in Larne to evict workers protesting the sacking of more than 800 seafarers, union representatives have said.
Services between Larne and Cairnryan are suspended and will not resume for the “next few days”, the company said amid the turmoil following news of the clash.
Around 100 seafarers working on the Larne-Cairnryan route were among those furloughed without notice on Thursday.
It is unclear whether any personnel were removed from the ship by security personnel, who were pictured boarding.
Unions have told members it is in their interests to stay on board during this standoff – but it is understood that all staff have now jumped ship. The company, which wants to cut its crew costs by 50%, is reportedly considering employing temporary workers as replacements.
Passengers, carriers and freight have been redirected to Stena Line ferries, including from Stranraer to Belfast, with the company saying it is trying to accommodate them but is extremely busy.
Politicians expressed surprise at the developments, which also took industry insiders and carriers completely by surprise.
In a statement released hours after departures were suspended and amid speculation, P&O said its business was not viable in its current state.
“P&O Ferries plays a vital role in keeping trade flowing, moving supply chains and connecting families and friends across the North and Irish Seas and the English Channel,” he said.
The statement added: “However, in its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have incurred a loss of £100m year-on-year which has been covered by our parent company. DP World. It’s not sustainable. Our survival depends on making quick and meaningful change now. Without it, there is no future for P&O Ferries.
“These circumstances have resulted in a very difficult but necessary decision, which was only taken after seriously considering all available options. As part of the process we are beginning today, we are providing 800 seafarers with notices of immediate dismissals and we will compensate them for this lack of notice with enhanced compensation packages.”
The company employs 3,000 people after laying off 1,100 people in May 2020. Dubai-based DP World bought P&O for £322million in 2019.
Alliance East Antrim MP Stewart Dickson said urgent clarification was needed on the future of Larne Port. P&O owns the port and Mr Dickson said the local impact could be wide-ranging.
“My first thought goes out to the workers who have been advised by P&O that they are no longer employed and I hope they get the support they need at this difficult time,” Mr Dickson said.
“I am deeply disappointed with the way P&O has handled this whole episode, showing underhanded behavior which is not acceptable at best and drastic measures to fire staff at worst. There appears to have been no consultation with staff or unions this movement.
“Given that P&O owns the Port of Larne, urgent questions must now be asked about the potentially wide-ranging impact locally. I call on the Department of Economy to immediately engage with P&O on the future of the port and its potential ramifications.
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: ‘This is a worrying development which has understandably shocked P&O staff and customers. I will speak to P&O’s chief executive for an update.’
Stena Line has confirmed it is trying to accommodate people booked on P&O ferries between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“We remind people that if they can’t get a place on one of our six daily departures from Belfast, we also have options via our services from Dublin to Holyhead and even via Rosslare to Fishguard if people are traveling more to the south”, Stena line noted.
The RMT union said it had asked members to stay on board their ships once they docked or risked being “kicked out” of their jobs.
“We are focused on the long term. We are determined to fight,” RMT spokesman Geoff Martin said.
The union said a private security team had been sent to a ship docked in Larne to remove staff on board.
A ‘deeply disturbed’ RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, added: ‘We have asked our members to stay on board and demand that our members across P&O operations in the UK be protected and that the secretary of State intervenes to save British sailors from the queue.”
Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus International, which also represents seafarers, said the news “is a betrayal of British workers. It is simply outrageous given that this Dubai-owned company has received millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money during the pandemic”. .
He added: “There has been no consultation and no advice given by P&O. Rest assured that the full resources of Nautilus International are ready to act in defense of our members. We believe it is in the interest of our members to remain on board until further notice.