Protesters gathered in Westminster to hear speakers including Labor deputy leader Angela Rayner criticize the government for failing to stop P&O from “shamefully” laying off 800 workers.
Speeches by opposition members and union leaders on Monday afternoon were met with applause and chants of “no to P&O” and “shame on you”.
Newly made redundant sailors in the crowd warned that replacing qualified personnel with cheaper agency workers would lead to a maritime ‘disaster’.
The government could have done something about this some time ago and chose not to
Protesters had marched from P&O’s London offices to the Houses of Parliament waving signs reading ‘Stop P&O job cutting’.
Addressing protesters as ‘comrades’ near Parliament Square, Ms Rayner called the treatment of workers ‘worse than in Victorian times’ and called on the government to act.
“The government could have done something about this a while ago and chose not to,” she said.
“We have a government that thinks getting rid of hard-working staff and employing agency workers on temporary contracts at £1.80 an hour is acceptable.
“Now it’s worse than it was in Victoria’s day. Well, we say no. Again today, the Labor Party has given the government an opportunity to say what it means and mean what it says and to do something good to change and care for the working people of this country.
“I know comrades, you are going to win this fight.”
Labor will force an emergency vote in the Commons demanding the government take action to ban fires and the rehiring of staff, which involves firing workers before returning them to their jobs on worse terms.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the PA news agency he was “confident we will win this”, saying the company’s decision had caused outrage from all parties.
He called the mass layoffs an “absolute disgrace” and said DP World, the Dubai-based parent company of P&O, should not be allowed to operate in the UK unless the workers are reinstated.
“I don’t think we should allow DP, as the company that owns P&O, to operate in this country, either on freeports or on many government contracts, unless they reinstate these workers. We cannot tolerate this,” he said.
“We expect the government to intervene to ensure that the 800 workers are reinstated and that legislation is introduced to prevent this from happening again.”
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, which represents a large proportion of the 800 laid off workers, said their replacements were being paid well below the UK minimum wage.
General Secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘The news that seafarers now on ships in UK ports are to be paid $2.38 (£1.81) an hour is a shocking exploitation of these seafarers and another heartbreaking betrayal from those who were fired. ”
MP for Hull East Karl Turner condemned P&O as a ‘disgusting, stinking, capitalist and predatory company’, and said he had spoken with devastated former workers, including a man who was 18 months away from his retired when he was fired.
P&O Ferries said it made the “difficult decision” as a “last resort” and insisted the business would not have survived otherwise.
Mr Turner said: ‘(The Government) got lucky in the past and they let it go. It’s not good (Secretary of Transport) Grant Shapps to walk out now with his crocodile tears. He could do something to act today.
“One man I spoke to started as a deckhand at 17, he’s second in command now. He is 18 months away from retiring. (He cried like a baby to me about the disgust and the fact that he felt so betrayed by this filthy, stinky, capitalist, predatory company.
Lee Davison, 46, worked as a sailor for the company for 30 years before being laid off last week.
“I was a little numb over the weekend, to be honest, but we’re back here today and I think everyone, me and my colleagues, are angry now. We want something done. about it,” he said.
He warned that potential “language barriers” caused by hiring foreign workers could lead to a dangerous “lack of transparency”.
“There is going to be a disaster,” he said, adding that the new agency workers were not to blame.
Referring to letters sent last week by Mr Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to the chief executive of P&O expressing their “anger and disappointment” at the move, Mr Davison said: “The forcefully worded letters do not allow not for people to get their jobs back. We need action.
“The grown men were in tears because they don’t know what they’re going to do. It had a terrible impact on people’s mental health. It’s shocking.
“If P&O pulls it off, it will be a model for every employer in the country.”