P&O Ferries is facking a legal challenge as 800 seafaring staff were made immediately redundant over Zoom in a fire and rehire move.

Both the RMT union and Nautilus are seeking legal advice on the dismissals in a move to replace existing workers with cheaper agency staff.

P&O received more than £15 million in public subsidies in a year to support jobs and services during the pandemic.

The ferry firm has suspended services for between seven and 10 days on the key Scotland to Northern Ireland route –Cairnryan to Larne – as well as Dover to Calais, Dublin to Liverpool and Hull to Rotterdam.

Seafarers union Nautilus International say they and the RMT union are “actively progressing” their legal response to the “clearly illegal” move.

Mark Dickinson, the general secretary of seafarers union Nautilus International said: "The company is duty bound to consult, and consult with the trade unions. We have collective bargaining agreements for all the vessels on all the routes.

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"We’ve worked for this company for decades, through difficult times and good times.

"This is clearly illegal."

Employment lawyers have warned P&O may have broken several laws.

When 100 or more employees are proposed to be made dismissed, a 45-day consultation has to take place and collective redundancy rules apply and the business secretary has to be notified.

No dismissals should take effect until consultation is complete and the minimum notice above has been given.

Beth Hale, partner at employment law firm CM Murray, said P&O Ferries should have consulted with unions and staff about potential dismissals and notified the government that hundreds of jobs were at risk.

"It's potentially an enormous breach, but they purport to be paying their way out of it," she told the BBC

There are protests planned on Friday across the ports of Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne.

The government has said it would review its contracts with P&O who after the company moved to replace existing workers with cheaper agency staff.

The company said it acted to preserve its long-term future, calling the decision “very difficult but necessary”.

A chorus of cross-party MPs, however, described P&O's actions as "callous" and "disgraceful".

The RMT union said it was one of the "most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations".

The Scottish Trades Union Congress said it was a “damning, outrageous move”, while the RMT union said crew members were being replaced with cheaper agency workers and advised members to remain on board.

It said P&O had replaced 60 UK ratings on the Pride of Hull, which operates from Hull to Zeebrugge, with 57 agency crew from the Philippines who are paid £4.50 per hour.

While staff were being briefed about the redundancy over a Zoom call, motorists were being refused entry to Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway yesterday morning and other ports across the UK.

The ferry operator said the “tough decision” to stop services was made to secure the future of the business.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she had spoken with its chief executive and had “made clear my utter disgust at this appalling treatment of its workers”.

The UK Government said the treatment of workers was “wholly unacceptable”.

The company, is now facing  calls to reimburse the millions it received in furlough cash back to the Government amid widespread condemnation of how the business was handled.

The Herald understands that the P&O group received £14.972m in Government grant income in 2020 – a mix of finance provided as part of the job retention scheme and in relation to post-Brexit freight capacity agreements with the Department of Transport.

It is known that £4.4m in subsidies was also given to P&O as part of the Government’s public service obligation scheme which began on May 9, 2020, and closed nine weeks later to safeguard vital freight routes across the UK. Only routes assessed to be at risk of becoming commercially unviable - and, so, at risk of closure - due to the impact of Covid-19 were considered for funding.

A subsidy of £772,000 provided by the UK Government to P&O was used to support the Scotland to Northern Ireland link between Cairnryan and Larne.

In April 2020, P&O sought a £150m bailout from the UK Government to avoid collapse, but no offer was made.

In May 2020, the firm said that around 1,100 workers would lose their jobs as part of a plan to make the business “viable and sustainable”.

P&O is owned by Dubai-based DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators. It paid a £270m dividend to shareholders in 2020.

Profit attributable to owners of the company jumped by over 50% to $475m (£361m) in the period ended June 30, from $313m (£238m) last year.

The P&O land and sea group made a £105.3m profit after tax loss in 2020 following a £1.9m deficit in 2019 and a £2.7m profit in 2018.

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But P&O Ferries Limited, which operates the passenger services had made a £63m profit after tax profit in 2020.

Karl Turner, MP for East Hull, said P&O Ferries said: "All of that money - for furlough in the pandemic - should be clawed back.

"Any money that the British taxpayer provided to that business should be taken back from them and the Government should be saying to the company 'get round the table with the unions and negotiate some sort of deal'.

"We cannot have a situation like this whereby businesses can behave like this with British workers."

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said the treatment of the workers was a “national scandal” and she believed it was llegal. She said: “It is quite simply a scandal that this Dubai owned company, which received millions of pounds of taxpayers money in the pandemic, without consultation and without notice have upended the lives of 800 British workers, all while the profits of their owners DP World soared by 52% in the first half of 2021,” she said.

“It is a complete and utter scandal that a company should be behaving like this on British soil. To tell hundreds of workers on Zoom that they are going to be losing their jobs and then to try and physically remove them from ships when they have done absolutely nothing wrong. There is absolutely no financial situation that P&O could be in that could merit this kind of behaviour.”

“Unions are advising that workers stay on the ships, but clearly there are really serious health and safety concerns. Agency security workers are working on wearing balaclavas and are handcuff trained. I’m fearful for the safety of the workers on the ships but they are doing everything they can to protect and fight for their jobs.”

Aviation And Maritime Minister Robert Courts told the House of Commons that staff should take legal advice over what has happened.

“Reports of workers being given zero notice and escorted off their ships with immediate effect while being told cheaper alternatives would take up their roles shows the insensitive way in which P&O  approached this issue – a point I have made crystal clear to management when I spoke to them earlier this afternoon,” he said.  “I am extremely concerned and, frankly, angry at the way workers have been treated today.”

Sources suggested that the company which employs almost 4,000 workers and has 20 ships is to make hundreds of seafaring staff redundant and hire agency workers to operate its ships.

RMT, which said crew members were being “replaced with foreign labour” is demanding its members across P&O’s is threatening legal action against P&O, calling it one of the “most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations”.

Yesterday’s announcement sparked outrage from politicians and workers, many of whom refused to leave ships, leading to the incredible scene of security guards with handcuffs being deployed to remove them.

Unions are now threatening legal action against P&O.

Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch said: “We are seeking urgent legal action and are again calling for the Government to take action to stop what is fast turning into one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations.”

“We’ve seen minibuses full of workers and security staff who have had handcuff training. This is how they plan to treat staff who show resistance,” national secretary Darren Procter added, who said staff were given no warning of the announcement.

P&O said its survival was dependent on “making swift and significant changes now”.

“In its current state, P&O Ferries is not a viable business. We have made a loss year on year, which has been covered by our parent DP World. This is not sustainable. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries,” it said.

“These circumstances have resulted in a very difficult but necessary decision, which was only taken after seriously considering all the available options. As part of the process we are starting today, we are providing 800 seafarers with immediate severance notices and will be compensating them for this lack of advance notice with enhanced compensation packages.”

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she had spoken directly to the chief executive of P&O and made clear her “utter disgust at this appalling treatment of its workers”.

She added: “I made clear that the Scottish Government stands with these workers and will do everything possible to ensure fair treatment for them.

“I’m deeply concerned at P&O announcement - due to the importance to Scotland of the Cairnryan/Larne route obviously, but also the impact on 100s of workers. Fire & rehire is an appalling practice & offends the basic principle of fair work.”

Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary Roz Foyer said: “This is a damning, outrageous move from P&O and we offer our full support to the RMT Union and all their members.

“We cannot – and will not - permit hundreds of workers to be sacked on the spot to be replaced by cheaper labour whilst P&O scramble to remain viable.”

The furore began at 7.39am yesterday when P&O said that it would be unable to run services for the next few hours ahead of a “major announcement”.

Several hours later customers were told that they should arrive at the port as booked and that they would arrange for an “alternative carrier as quickly as possible”.