LONDON (AP) — The British government said Friday that a criminal investigation has begun into P&O Ferries after the company fired almost 800 U.K.-based crew without warning so they could be replaced by cheaper contract staff.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the Insolvency Service had opened ”formal criminal and civil investigations.”
The Dubai-owned company has acknowledged it broke the law by not consulting unions before the mass firings on March 17. But chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite said there was no other way to stop the ferry operator from going under.
The British government has vowed to reverse the sackings but its option appear limited. It says it will introduce legislation that would force companies like P&O Ferries to pay the U.K. minimum wage at sea, as well as on land. It also has asked British ports to turn away boats carrying seafarers paid below the U.K. minimum wage, which went up Friday to 9.50 pounds ($12.45) an hour.
Hebblethwaite said the average pay of the ferries’ agency crew is 5.50 pounds ($7.20) an hour.
The company, a subsidiary of Dubai government-owned DP World, says the staff changes were needed to save the business and protect 2,200 other jobs after hundreds of millions of pounds in losses over the past two years.
But the move sparked outrage from politicians and unions, especially since P&O received millions of pounds of British government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he welcomed the criminal investigation.
“I have called for the P&O chief executive to step down after he shamelessly told Parliament he had knowingly broken the law, and it is right the company is held to account for its actions,” he said.
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