P&O recently announced plans to axe 1,200 jobs along with eight ships and the closure of four out of its 13 routes; the cuts are blamed on the decline in booze cruise business.
Talks with the unions to save jobs have faltered resulting in the RMT union warning the ferry liner that it is "sleepwalking towards a ballot."
Rising competition from budget airlines and the Eurotunnel train service are responsible for taking business away, said P&O who added that weekend travellers had been pinched by tempting low costs flights to European destinations and slashed shuttle service prices.
Traditional booze cruisers were also being drawn to Eastern Europe by even cheaper alcohol and cigarettes said the ferry company. The 50% hike in French tobacco taxes had put a further nail in the P&O coffin, they admitted.
Despite price-matching deals offered by the company this summer passenger numbers have continued to go into decline. A million passengers a year had been lost since 1997 when 21 million people passed through Dover. That figure dropped to just 15 million last year.
The unions, however, refuse to accept the scale of job losses.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said:
"We are looking for a way to safeguard our members’ jobs and secure their long-term future, but the company seems to be suffering from serious short-sightedness. The company not only wants mass redundancies and to rip up the contracts of those who remain, but it even wants to put the squeeze on those who agree to go.
"That is unacceptable three times over. We have said from the start that we will resist compulsory redundancies at P&O, but neither will we accept cuts in pay and worsening conditions.
Crow added: "Rather than continue sleepwalking into a ballot for industrial action P&O should heed the wake-up call and start talking to us about the long-term future."