Ferry operator P&O has revealed it is paying £36.5m to cover compensation for the 800 seafarers it sacked without warning.
It is understood staff who accept the payouts will be required to sign non-disclosure agreements requiring them not to disparage the company.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told the House of Commons on Monday P&O was using the agreements to “keep the employees quiet”, and accused the company of acting in a “shameful and unacceptable way”.
The company said it believed the settlement would be the “largest compensation package in the British marine sector”.
The payouts being offered to dismissed staff are linked to their length of service with the company, and in some cases workers will be paid more than £170,000.
P&O Ferries said 575 out of the 786 seafarers dismissed by the company are in discussions over the severance offers, with some receiving compensation equivalent to 91 weeks’ pay.
It said more than 40 workers will receive more than £100,000, while no worker will receive less than £15,000.
P&O is offering two-and-a-half weeks’ salary for each year of employment, as well as up to 13 weeks’ salary in lieu of notice, and a further 13 weeks’ salary because of the absence of a consultation period. It said the compensation package was the basis for offers made to workers at the time of dismissal.
The announcement came as the government warned P&O Ferries could face prosecution over the sackings, while Shapps said ministers were reviewing all government contracts and dealing with the ferry operator and parent company DP World.
A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: “This has been an incredibly tough decision for the business: to make this choice or face taking the company into administration. This would have meant the loss of 3,000 jobs and the end of P&O Ferries.”
The company said it had taken the “hard choice” to dismiss workers to guarantee the “future viability of P&O Ferries” and avoid large-scale and lengthy disruption to trade.
Several P&O services including sailings on the Dover to Calais route remain suspended, while further protests are planned at ports around the UK for the coming days.
The RMT union said on Tuesday that seafarers from abroad had been brought in to replace the 800 sacked British crew and were being paid as little as £1.80 an hour.
P&O Ferries disputed the figures but declined to discuss the rates or give alternative rates and would not confirm whether it paid the minimum wage. The company said it would give support to sacked workers to find a new job either at sea or onshore, and would help those who could not find a new job.
P&O Ferries and its owner, DP World, are expected to face a grilling from MPs on Thursday, when they will face questions from parliament’s business and transport committees.