UK PM Johnson says it looks like P&O Ferries broke the law

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, March 23, 2022. REUTERS/John Sibley

LONDON, March 23 (Reuters) - The British government will take legal action against P&O Ferries because it believes the company broke the law in firing 800 staff without prior notice, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday.

The abrupt nature of the sackings, which prompted protests from workers at ports across the country, has been seized upon by the trade union-backed opposition Labour Party as an example of what they say are poor workers' rights in Britain.

"We are taking legal action against the company concerned," Johnson told parliament on Wednesday. "It seems to me that they have broken the law."

The Conservative prime minister also said the government would be encouraging workers to take legal action themselves.

P&O Ferries, a unit of Dubai-owned ports firm DP World, has said it lost 100 million pounds ($131 million) in the last year and that without changes its business was not sustainable.

P&O Ferries did not respond to a request for a comment on Johnson's remarks. DP World declined to comment.

On Tuesday, the government published a letter from the boss of P&O Ferries, Peter Hebblethwaite, to business minister Kwasi Kwarteng defending the changes as a last resort as there was no other viable means of preserving the business.

Kwarteng said P&O Ferries appeared to have failed to follow the rules around making large groups of staff redundant, which include carrying out a consultation with unions and notifying the government ahead of those consultations.

Hebblethwaite, who acknowledged the distress caused to dismissed workers and their families, said: "I do not consider that the various P&O companies involved have committed any offence...All relevant vessels are registered outside of the UK. Notification was made to the relevant authorities on 17 March."

Asked by Kwarteng for reassurance that no other similar action was being considered, P&O Ferries said there were "some" shoreside-based employees in the UK who might be impacted by the changes.

Four of the eight vessels whose workers were dismissed were registered in Cyprus, three in the Bahamas and one in Bermuda, the letter stated.

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Muvija M Editing by Mark Heinrich

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