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UK ferry operator says it acted lawfully in mass firings

LONDON (AP) — The Dubai government-owned ferry operator at the center of a bitter labor dispute in Britain says it didn’t break the law when it fired 786 crew members without advance notice because they all worked on ships registered outside the U.K.

P&O Ferries also acknowledged in a letter dated Wednesday that the way the dismissals were carried out caused distress for workers and said it had offered “generous compensation” to those involved.

But the company also said it couldn’t have survived without “fundamentally changed crewing arrangements” and that it took the action to save 2,200 other jobs. The dismissed seafarers are being replaced by cheaper workers employed by a third-party crew provider.

“Restructuring our workforce in this way was not a course of action that we ever wanted to take as an organization,” chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite said in a letter to government ministers. “We did this as a last resort and only after full consideration of all other options.”

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The letter came in response to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s request for further information amid outrage from workers and allegations that P&O violated U.K. labor laws. Kwarteng last week said it appeared the company hadn’t followed the required process for dismissing large numbers of workers and notified it that failure to do so was a criminal offense that could lead to an unlimited fine.

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The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers reacted angrily to the P&O letter, saying the “disgusting statement” sought to justify the company’s “shameful acts.”

P&O said the dismissed crew members worked on eight ships registered in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cyprus. They were employed by three P&O units incorporated in Jersey, a self-governing crown dependency that isn’t part of the U.K.

Crew members employed by two other subsidiaries based in France and the Netherlands weren’t fired, P&O said.

P&O gave advance notice of the firings to authorities in the countries where the ships are registered, Hebblethwaite said. As a result, P&O doesn’t believe it violated U.K. laws.

“The very clear statutory obligation … was for each company to notify the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered,” he said.

P&O has announced that it will pay workers 13 weeks salary to compensate for the lack of advance notice, and another 13 weeks salary in lieu of consultation. In addition, P&O says dismissed crew members will receive 2½ weeks salary for every year of service, instead of the legally required 1½ weeks.

About 575 of the dismissed workers have accepted the severance package, P&O said.

But the RMT union said the package amounted to “blackmail and threats” because workers will only receive a fraction of the payout unless they give up their legal right to file an action with the employment tribunal.

“They have ripped away the jobs, careers and pensions of our members and thrown them on the dole with the threat that if they do not sign up and give away their rights they will lose many thousands of pounds in payments,” General Secretary Mick Lynch said in a statement.

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