Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The reputation and commercial viability of P&O will take a “massive hit” if the ferry company does not change course after the sacking of 800 workers, Stormont’s economy minister has warned.
Gordon Lyons, whose constituency includes Larne port, told the Assembly that he had instructed his officials to investigate potential breaches of employment law following the announcement last week.
Meanwhile, P&O said on Monday that ferries between Larne in Co Antrim and Cairnryan in Scotland remain suspended.
A tweet said the services were “unable to run for the next few days” and it had not been able to arrange alternative travel for the route.
#POLarne #POCairnryan Services remain suspended. It is no longer possible for us to arrange travel via an alternative operator on this route. For essential travel, customers are advised to seek alternatives themselves,
— P&O Ferries Updates (@POferriesupdate) March 21, 2022
Mr Lyons updated the Stormont Assembly on the controversy, which he described as “disgraceful”.
He said: “At the outset let me be clear; neither I, as a constituency representative in East Antrim or as Minister of the Economy, nor my officials in the department, were afforded the courtesy of advanced notice of the P&O announcement.
“I regard their actions as disgraceful. P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book, and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of their loyal and most diligent workforce.
“Even now, I can scarcely believe how callously they behaved.”
Mr Lyons said he understood that up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland were directly affected.
He added: “The stories I heard of staff being escorted off ships, by men in balaclavas, carrying handcuffs, was as sinister as it was outrageous.
“Deploying such a tactic here, in Northern Ireland, to an unsuspecting workforce is so ill-judged and shocking, our condemnation alone is simply not enough.”
He told the Assembly that employment law is a devolved responsibility within Stormont.
He added: “I do not believe P&O have acted either within the spirit, or the letter, of our employment law.
“Even now, at this late stage, I would encourage them to come to the table and discuss this with us.
“Earlier today, I met with our own Labour Relations Agency.
“They stand ready and willing to meet immediately with P&O to see how they can turn around what is a terrible situation.
“It must be in P&O’s interest to engage, because let us be in no doubt: their reputation, not to mention their future commercial viability, stands to take a massive hit here if they do not change course.
“They may want to hide behind the small print of maritime law that might, in their eyes, justify what they have done. But the court of public opinion will not be so sympathetic.
“In terms of going forward, not only do we stand ready, through the Labour Relations Agency, to intervene, but if P&O fail to take me up on that offer locally, I have already asked my officials to investigate what remedies we may have for any breaches of our devolved employment law.”
Meanwhile, Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy raised the issue during a meeting with Britain's chief secretary to the treasury Simon Clarke on Monday.
He said: “I took the opportunity at the end of the meeting to raise with him the treatment of workers by P&O ferry company and to press the government over what action it can take both to support those workers but also to look at the actions of the company.
“He did agree with me in relation to how unfair the treatment of workers was.
“I intend to go back to him in relation to what measures the British government are looking at in the time ahead.”