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Ferry giant P&O could face legal action in Bermuda over sackings

Grounded: the P&O passenger ship Norbay, which has been prohibited from leaving port by Bermuda authorities (Photograph supplied)

P&O Ferries could be hauled before Bermuda’s courts for flouting island labour laws, The Royal Gazette can reveal.

The company, which provides passenger ferry services out of Britain to France, Holland and Ireland, hit the headlines last month when it dismissed almost 800 seafarers without notice.

Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, accused P&O of failing to notify the British Government of the mass dismissals in advance. Under UK maritime law, it is a criminal offence for shipping companies not to notify the Government of dismissals of more than 100 staff at least 45 days in advance.

Mr Johnson told the House of Commons two weeks ago: "Under Section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992, it looks to me as though the company concerned has broken the law.“

P&O bosses denied that allegation, arguing that its overseas-registered ships — including the Bermuda-registered Norbay — are not bound by Britain’s rules.

In a letter to the British Parliament, Peter Hebblethwaite, the chief executive officer of P&O, said: "The very clear statutory obligation in this case was to notify the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered.“

Mr Hebblethwaite claimed that Bermuda and two other “flag states”’ where P&O ships are registered — the Bahamas and Cyprus — were notified of the redundancies on March 17, the day they were implemented.

He later claimed: “No criminal offence has been committed. Neither me, P&O Ferries or our shareholder, DP World, would allow it."

It is understood that Bermuda’s requirements of advance notice are similar to Britain’s in cases where more than 100 staff are to be laid off.

The Bermuda Shipping and Maritime Authority has confirmed that it has contacted the Department of Public Prosecutions for a review of the P&O matter.

Francis Richardson, chief executive officer of the BSMA, said: “At the time P&O acted, it was identified by Bermuda to be an apparent breach of the Bermuda Merchant Shipping (Seafarer’s Employment) Regulations 2013.

“This implements part of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 in Bermuda in that the period of notice required to terminate a seafarer’s employment agreement was not adhered to.

“This matter has been referred to the Department of Public Prosecutions for their review.”

Nautilus International, an international trade union representing seafarers, also claimed that P&O was in breach of notification rules.

It said the company was "obliged to provide 45 days' notice to the Cypriot authorities, and 30 days' notice to the Bahamian and Bermudian authorities".

P&O has admitted that it broke British employment regulations and that there should have been a period of consultation with worker unions before announcing the redundancies.

It has also confirmed that the redundancies were made to cut operating costs — and that it has already replaced the 800 redundant staff with new recruits, who are to be paid lower than minimum wage rates.

Video footage taken on March 17 shows employees being marched off boats by balaclava-clad security while replacement staff waited in vans on the dock.

The Norbay will not be able to set sail immediately. The BSMA has issued a “No Sail” prohibition notice, confining it to port until the authority is satisfied that replacement crews brought in by P&O are capable of operating the vessel.

Mr Richardson said: “Our UK-based surveyors are scheduled to inspect the Norbay next week and, if all is in order, and the new crew properly familiarised with the vessel, we will issue a short-term safety management certificate and lift the prohibition notice.”

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Published April 06, 2022 at 7:43 am (Updated April 06, 2022 at 1:27 pm)

Ferry giant P&O could face legal action in Bermuda over sackings

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