Agency staff 'go on strike' on P&O Ferry that lost power

Mutiny! Agency staff ‘go on strike’ on P&O Ferry that lost power and drifted in Irish Sea for two hours before lifeboats and tug came to the rescue

  • The European Causeway was left drifting in the Irish sea following an emergency alert from the ferry
  • The float away ferry was seen bobbing about five miles off Larne Harbour after setting sail around midday
  • It comes after a disastrous few weeks for ferry operators P&O after mass sackings sparked public fury 
  • Back at port, some of the new crew members reportedly asked unions for advice about terminating contracts
  • Darren Procter, of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said the incident was down to ‘inexperienced crew’

Agency staff have ‘gone on strike’ on a P&O Ferry that lost power and drifted in the Irish Sea for two hours before lifeboats and a tug were sent to rescue it.

The European Causeway, which can carry 410 passengers, was adrift five miles off the coast of Northern Ireland for more than an hour on Tuesday afternoon, according to tracking website Marine Traffic, before being escorted to its planned destination at Port of Larne. 

It was rescued by three lifeboats and a tugboat before it regained power shortly before 2.15pm, much to the relief of passengers on board who had endured blackouts.

After the ship got back to the port, a number of the new crew members asked maritime unions for advice about terminating their contracts, the Times reported. 

Darren Procter, of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said Tuesday’s incident was down to ‘inexperienced crew’ as seafarers ‘familiar with the ship would have been able to keep it under power’. He also claimed P&O Ferries was holding staff to the end of their contracts and refusing to pay their travel expenses if they leave early.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said Tuesday’s incident had been a temporary issue and the European Causeway had travelled to Larne ‘under its own propulsion’.

It was yet another public relations disaster for the scandal-hit firm – just weeks after it sparked fury by firing 800 UK staff over zoom and replacing them with cheaper foreign crews. 

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced earlier this month that the Insolvency Service had started ‘formal criminal and civil investigations’ into the company, which he said he would be ‘following closely’ along with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The probe came after P&O Ferries admitted to breaking the law in the manner in which it terminated staff on March 17 to hire cheaper agency workers, a move that has caused a major backlash from politicians and workers – compounded this week by claims it wanted to cut the wages of its new workers even further.

The European Causeway had already been detained last month ‘based on concerns over its safety’ and to ‘prevent them going to sea’, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said. The Pride of Kent was also detained in Dover on March 28 after it failed inspections to see if it was ‘safe to go to sea without passengers or cargo’. 

Mr Procter said crew on board the European Causeway had claimed that engine parts were changed with the firm’s European Highlander ‘in order to pass its inspection’, the Telegraph reported.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: ‘Following a temporary mechanical issue, the European Causeway is now continuing on its scheduled journey to the Port of Larne under its own propulsion, with local tugs on standby, where it will discharge its passengers and cargo as planned.

‘There are no reported injuries on board and all the relevant authorities have been informed. Once in dock a full independent investigation will be undertaken.’

The Marine Traffic website said the European Causeway’s automatic identification system status had been set to ‘not under command’. 

This setting is reserved for use when a vessel is ‘unable to manoeuvre as required by these rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel’. 

A picture, believed to be taken from another ferry, shows a helicopter hovering above the European Causeway (right), which became adrift in the Irish Sea on Tuesday afternoon

P&O Ferries operated European Highlander vessel in dock at the Port of Larne, Co Antrim, after it lost power off the Co Antrim coast

Agency staff are ‘refusing to work’ on a P&O Ferry that lost power and drifted in the Irish Sea for two hours before lifeboats and a tug were sent to rescue it

The European Causeway, which can carry 410 passengers, was adrift five miles off the coast of Larne for more than an hour before being escorted to its planned destination at Port of Larne

A route tracking map appeared to show it off course and bobbing around in the Irish Sea

The Marine Traffic website today said the European Causeway’s (vessel pictured) automatic identification system status had been set to ‘not under command’, causing it to drift 

The European Causeway (pictured today) had been detained at Larne after an initial inspection by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on March 25 uncovered 31 safety failings

A RNLI spokesperson said that three lifeboats had been sent to the scene to help escort the European Causeway 

The European Causeway, which can carry up to 410 passengers, is currently bobbing around

It left Cairnryan at midday – with an unknown number of people onboard – due in to Larne Harbour at 2pm

March 17: A P&O Ferries executive is tells 800 staff in a Zoom call that they are being made redundant and replaced with agency workers. 

The firm also announces it has suspended sailings ‘for the next few days.’  

March 18: Staff protests break out at ports in Dover, Liverpool and Hull. 

March 21: Foreign agency workers from India, the Philippines and Pakistan are pictured being transported to P&O Ferries’ ships.  

March 24: P&O Ferries’ millionaire chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite admits to MPs that his company ‘chose’ to break the law when it sacked its staff and says he would do the same again.

March 25: P&O ferry the European Causeway is detained in Northern Ireland for being ‘unfit to sail’.

March 28: A second vessel, the Pride of Kent, is detained in Dover by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

March 30: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps vows to introduce new law to ban P&O Ferries from British ports if crew are not paid the minimum wage.  

April 1: Criminal and civil investigations are launched into P&O Ferries’ mass sackings. 

April 7: P&O Ferries cancellations continue to cause gridlock on motorways Kent as queues of drivers waiting to cross the Channel build up.

April 14: P&O Ferries suspends all of its passenger services across the Channel over Easter.

April 19: Several P&O agency staff are fired after testing positive for alcohol.

April 22: The Maritime and Coastguard Agency seizes a third vessel, the 700ft long Spirit of Britain.

April 24: P&O Ferries are accused of trying to pay new staff even lower wages. 

April 26: A P&O boat comes adrift in the Irish Sea and has to be escorted back to safety.  

The company’s suspension of its Dover-Calais route has caused travel chaos on roads in Kent this month as other ferry companies have been placed under immense pressure to cope with the Easter demand.

Dealing a further blow to its reputation, it was claimed this week that ships were prevented from sailing because their new poorly paid foreign crews had been trained so badly some did not even know where the liferafts were. 

A RNLI spokesperson said that three lifeboats had been sent to the scene on Tuesday.

The spokesperson said: ‘Three RNLI lifeboats were requested to launch this afternoon to assist a passenger ferry in difficulty one mile south east of The Maidens.

‘Larne RNLI’s all-weather lifeboat launched at 2.17pm while Red Bay’s RNLI’s all-weather lifeboat launched at 2.35pm followed by the inshore lifeboat at 3pm.

‘The ferry gained power again and was escorted back into the Port of Larne by all three lifeboats which were then stood down.’ 

A shipping expert said the good weather in the Irish Sea on Tuesday helped avert a potential disaster, while other experts said such breakdowns of large ships are extremely rare. 

P&O said that the vessel had been affected by a ‘mechanical issue’.

The company tweeted: ‘Due to a mechanical issue with the Causeway in the Irish Sea, tugs from Larne and Belfast were deployed to guide it back to port.

‘Once the ship is back in Port a full inspection will take place.’

One passenger told UTV: ‘The engine just collapsed. Stopped working. They managed to get it working again and we were sailing for another 10 minutes. Then it stopped and completely blacked out. All the electrics. Everything was down.’

The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ Union (RMT) said the reports were ‘deeply concerning, not least for the agency crew and passengers on board’.

The European Causeway had been detained at Larne after an initial inspection by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on March 25 uncovered 31 safety failings.

This was due to safety concerns after the company sacked nearly 800 seafarers and replaced them with cheaper agency workers.

The ship was cleared to resume serving the Larne-Cairnryan route a fortnight later following another examination.

The ferry company drew national outage last month when it illegally fired nearly 800 staff members without notice over Zoom and replaced them all immediately with cheaper foreign workers.

The agency workers who were hired to replace 786 staff say they were asked to sign new contracts on even lower pay.

The firm has not carried out a cross-Channel crossing since its mass sacking last month. 

This has caused a lack of capacity on the crucial Dover-Calais route, contributing to large queues of lorries on coastbound roads in Kent.

One of its ships, the Spirit of Britain, was impounded by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on April 12 over a string of safety issues, but has now been cleared for sailing. Another ship on the Dover-to-Calais route, the Pride Of Kent, remains in detention. 

Yesterday, travel expert Paul Charles said it was his understanding the ships had been impounded not due to actual physical deficiencies but because the new crews had not been trained well enough, with ‘some not even knowing where the liferafts were’. 

An official inspection the European Causeway, which went adrift today, listed an inability to deploy lifeboats or life rafts as one of 31 failures that had been identified. The ferry normally operates between Cairnryan, Scotland, and Larne, Northern Ireland. 

P&O Ferries expects to restart sailings for freight customers by Wednesday, but does not anticipate carrying tourists until early next week, it is understood d

The chief executive of P&O Ferries should be ‘behind bars’ after sacking 800 seafarers, a trade union president has said.

Peter Hebblethwaite replaced the workers with cheaper staff in order to protect the company, he said.

However, Pat Rafferty, Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) president, said sacking the seafarers via Zoom last month was ‘gutter’ and ‘inhumane’.

Speaking at the annual conference in Aberdeen, Mr Rafferty said that the CEO should be put in jail to send a clear message to employers.

Mr Hebblethwaite rejected a request from Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, to reverse the decision. He also admitted his company broke the law by failing to consult unions about the redundancies. It is understood the business needed to cut costs to avoid collapse as it was losing money at a rate of £100 million per year.

Mr Hebblethwaite said re-employing the sacked staff on their previous wages would ‘deliberately cause the company’s collapse, resulting in the irreversible loss of an additional 2,000 jobs’.

Mr Rafferty said: ‘There is something seriously wrong with our society when a company CEO like P&O can swan into a Westminster parliamentary committee and openly state that he broke the law – and worse still, he’d do it again. What that clearly demonstrates is how useless the law is. There is no deterrent to companies like P&O who are getting away with destroying people’s lives.

‘The law needs to change. Peter Hebblethwaite should be struck off the directors register and put behind bars. That would send a clear message to employers, act irresponsibly towards workers and face the possibility that you will be jailed.’

Mr Hebblethwaite was also accused of ‘corporate terrorism’ last month as he faced MSPs in Holyrood’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. He told MSPs he had not taken a cut to his £325,000 salary while replacing his staff with agency workers who receive less than minimum wage.

Mr Rafferty, who is also Scottish Secretary of Unite the Union, urged trade union members to boycott P&O Ferries until the dispute had been resolved. 

P&O Ferries expects to restart sailings for freight customers between Dover and Calais by Wednesday but does not anticipate carrying tourists until early next week, it is understood. 

On Monday morning the firm’s website began selling passenger tickets for cross-Channel sailings on its ship Spirit Of Britain from Wednesday. 

The website later said there were ‘no sailings available for your selected dates’.

Spirit Of Britain was detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on April 12 after safety issues were found, but was cleared to sail on Friday.

Meanwhile, Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch claimed P&O Ferries has been ‘prevented from further cutting the pay of vulnerable agency crew’ by ‘pressure from RMT seafarers’.

The firm, owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World, insisted no agency workers were asked to take a pay cut.

It came after the RMT received reports of agency workers at Dover being asked to sign new contracts with reduced payments, according to the BBC.

Mr Lynch said: ‘There are no depths to which P&O and their Dubai owners at DP World will not sink to extract the maximum profit from ferry crews operating our vital maritime supply chains.

‘This is underlined by the fact that, despite this U-turn, P&O are still only paying barely half of the UK minimum wage of £9.50 per hour.

‘Ultimately, staffing ships with super-exploited agency staff is not just morally wrong, it undercuts those remaining ferry operators who do abide by union rates of pay and conditions, and undermines passenger safety.

‘The only way out of this latest crisis at the ferry operator is for the Government to take over the running of P&O vessels and reinstate directly employed staff on union rates of pay.’ 

A spokesman for P&O Ferries said: ‘No agency seafarers were asked to accept reduced wages.’

He went on: ‘There was an administrative misunderstanding around the contract presented to one individual who appears to have been unaware of an appendix which made clear that he would be entitled to an additional £195 a month, meaning that there was no change in his overall pay.

‘There are no plans to change or reduce the wages of any of our agency seafarers and we have made clear that we will continue to comply fully with any national minimum wage obligations introduced by the UK Government.’

The company’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, told MPs last month that the average pay of the agency crew is £5.50 per hour.

That is below the UK’s minimum wage but Mr Hebblethwaite said it is permitted under international maritime laws.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wants to create ‘minimum wage corridors’ on ferry routes between the UK and other countries.

In a letter to the Mr Hebblethwaite in March in the wake of the scandal, Mr Shapps wrote: ‘The past week has left the reputation of P&O Ferries and, I’m afraid, you personally in tatters.

‘Not only were your letters of 22 March to the Business Secretary and myself wholly unsatisfactory, your appearance at the Transport Select Committee, during which you brazenly admitted to breaking employment law, demonstrated beyond doubt your contempt for workers who have given years of service to your company.

‘There is no excuse for this behaviour, and as I said publicly on Friday, I believe your position as chief executive, and indeed as a company director, has become untenable.’ 

Mr Shapps added: ‘I will be bringing a comprehensive package of measures to Parliament to ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions in the way that Parliament and this Government already intended. Through that package, I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage.’ 

MailOnline contacted P&O Ferries for comment about the allegation some of its crew did not know where liferafts were kept. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency declined to comment.  

It is claimed that if they refused to agree they faced being out of work and one agency worker emailed the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) , declaring: ‘We are desperate.’

P&O’s boss Peter Hebblethwaite, who earns £345,000 a year, admitted  firing the workers over Zoom without notice was illegal in testimony to MPs

P&O Ferries reportedly offered some of the agency workers, who replaced the near 800 staff fired last month, new contracts with even lower wages

Some crew earn just £748 a month for a 40-hour week – barely £4.50 an hour. 

In one example reported by The Mirror, workers say chefs paid £2,336 a month on temporary contracts were asked to sign new deals giving them £195 a month less.

Although it is not known who faced a cut in wages, or if staff on seven other ferries were targeted too.

Mr Procter, national secretary of the RMT says some of the new workers were brought in on just a month’s contract, and when those contracts expired the staff were offered ‘inferior terms’.

The RMT are campaigning for dismissed P&O staff to be reinstated, but ‘irrespective of nationality’ are concerned for the new staff members, Mr Procter added: ‘they are just as much victims as our members.’

Source: Read Full Article