The 800 P&O sackings had nothing to do with Brexit. British law protects workers but it was EU law that allowed the precedent in 2005

Graham Charles Lear
5 min readMar 24, 2022

The scandal of Irish Ferries in 2005 under EU law was a role model for P&O owners.

Research demonstrates that the all too familiar refrain of blaming Brexit for the latest calamity is wildly misplaced. Instead, it is the polar opposite of the truth. As this report explains, British employment law is tighter than EU law and it was under EU rules that Irish Ferries sacked mariners in 2005 in a very similar manner.

Since that event, nothing much changed, but when Irish Ferries opened up routes in competition with P&O and others on the lucrative Dover-Calais route everything changed. P&O had to find a means to reduce its costs to compete — and the EU model provided the answer.

P&O sackings are only plain sailing under EU law

The Irish Ferries story

  • The manner of Irish Ferries announcing its redundancies in 2005 was similar to that of P&O.
  • The Company’s boss warned ship crews they would be sacked and the company would stop its Irish Sea ferry services if they opposed plans to make 543 of them redundant within two weeks.
  • “The Irish workers earn about €11 an hour while the eastern European ship workers are paid €3.60. The Irish minimum wage is currently €7.65 an hour.” — Irish Independent 22 Sept 2005.
  • Eamonn Rothwell, CEO of Irish Ferries’ owners ICG told the Irish Times on 1st October 2005: “The ferry sector has responded by lowering its labour cost base, with 95 per cent of all ships using Irish ports now using outsourced crews, most of which are flying non-EU flags. Some use non-EU crews at even lower costs than EU staffing.”
  • The dispute was finally settled with Irish Ferries employing agency staff and receiving EU-approved Irish Government state aid for workforce compensation.
  • The end result was an agency workforce of mostly foreign nationals, far cheaper than that of its rivals, P&O, Stena and DFDS.
  • When Irish Ferries entered the Dover-Calais route in June 2021, its lower costs allowed it to offer lower fares: “For a family in a car travelling Dover to Calais return in April, P&O was last night offering £175 compared with DFDS’s £172 and Irish Ferries’ £135.” — Sunday Times 19 Mar 2022

Is P&O in breach of UK employment law?

The answer is most likely yes, and today they have openly admitted that they breached UK employment law.

The UK Government certainly believes the P&O Ferries’ action making 800 employees redundant is in breach of UK employment laws, specifically on collective redundancies. The two pieces of UK law that pertain to such situations are:

  • The EU’s 1998 Collective Redundancies Directive (ECRD) which the UK gold-plated to make it stronger. For instance, UK law requires a longer consultation period.
  • The ECRD legislation was carried forward as continuing UK law without any change.
  • Contrary to the claims of Rejoiners it has NOT been repealed.
  • The Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidations) Act 1992 (‘TULRCA’) is British law which requires that if a company wishes to make over 100 redundancies it has a duty to consult at a minimum of 90 days before the redundancies are contemplated (Section 188).

The question is, with the P&O ships registered in Cyprus, Nassau and Bermuda, do the staff made redundant come under British law, EU law, or a 3rd country’s law?

Below are some quotes by lawyers who specialise in the field

“Andrea London, a partner in law firm Winckworth Sherwood’s employment team, said Brexit was a “red herring”. She said the EU collective redundancies directive was implemented in the UK by a primary act of parliament which “gold-plated” (went beyond) the EU legislation”.

– from The Guardian, 18 Mar 2022.

Barry Ross, partner and director at Crossland Employment, told Personnel Today: “If the normal UK employment law regime covers the staff of P&O Ferries, then there are significant ramifications for the actions taken in firing 800 staff with immediate effect over a video call.”

“If the normal employment rules applied, P&O Ferries should have consulted the unions for at least 45 days; filed an HR1 (criminal offence not to and individual directors can be criminally liable); and consulted at a formative stage.”

- Personnel Today, 18 Mar 2022.

Finally, another red herring

Many anti-Brexit Rejoiners are alleging that because the UK Government blocked a “Fire and Re-Hire Bill” in 2021 this action could have been avoided. WRONG. It isn’t relevant in the P&O case because the company is not firing and re-hiring the staff made redundant.

Now I refer you all to my article

It's about how the European Movement, run by Adonis is sowing seeds of misinformation and blaming Brexit for everything. For those who have not read it, I encourage you to read it.

EU law all at sea while Brexit sails on

No sooner had the news of the P&O owner’s actions become public than Brexit was being blamed. This is either through ignorance or malign intent, for it cannot be from knowledge of British employment law.

The Dubai-based owners may have seen an opportunity or have felt forced to act when Irish Ferries decided to enter the Dover-Calais market. What matters is that they have, and P&O have copied their methods to push staff costs down.

Let us be under no illusions. EU law previously allowed Irish Ferries to behave in such a cavalier manner, even allowing Irish state aid to help finance the redundancies without penalty. Somehow I cannot imagine a British ferry company and the UK government having been allowed to do the same had we stayed in the EU.

Thankfully we’ll never know as we voted to leave. What is clear is that UK law is more restrictive and offers better protection to workers. Brexit cannot be blamed — although such facts will not stop some people from trying.

Sources: House of Commons Library | Times & Independent newspapers



Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.