UK Government Unveils Plan to Make P&O Ferries ‘Fundamentally Rethink’ Sackings

By PA Media
PA Media
PA Media
March 30, 2022 Updated: March 30, 2022

P&O Ferries will be forced to “fundamentally rethink their decision” to sack nearly 800 workers, according to British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The Cabinet minister made the claim as he set out a series of measures in response to the redundancies.

These include plans to create “minimum wage corridors” on ferry routes between the UK and other countries.

He will also urge ports to refuse access to boats carrying seafarers paid below the minimum wage, and ask the Insolvency Service to consider disqualifying P&O Ferries Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite from acting as a company director.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Shapps said: “P&O Ferries’ failure to see reason, to recognise the public anger, and to do the right thing by their staff has left the government with no choice.

“I am today announcing a package of nine measures that will force them to fundamentally rethink their decision.

“This will send a clear message to the maritime industry: we will not allow this to happen again.

“Where new laws are needed, we will create them. Where legal loopholes are cynically exploited, we will close them. And where employment rights are too weak, we will strengthen them.”

DP World-owned P&O Ferries sacked its crews and replaced them with agency workers on March 17.

The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and over is £8.91 ($11.71) per hour.

Hebblethwaite told MPs on March 24 that the average pay of the agency crew is £5.50 ($7.23) per hour, but insisted this was permitted under international maritime laws.

He also admitted that his company broke the law by not consulting with trade unions before sacking workers.

Shapps told the Commons: “The Insolvency Service has the legal powers to pursue complaints where a company has engaged in, and I quote, so-called sharp practice.

“Surely the whole House agrees that nothing could be sharper than dismissing 800 staff and deliberately breaking the law whilst doing so?”

Shapps said HM Revenue & Customs will dedicate “significant resource” to ensure all UK ferry operators are “compliant with the national minimum wage, no ifs, no buts.”

Employers will be prevented from using “fire and rehire tactics” if they fail to make “reasonable efforts to reach agreement through consultation,” the transport secretary said.

Shapps added of the proposals: “It’ll send a clear message that if you are using British waters and British ports to ply your trade then you must accept British laws.”

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told the Commons that the steps announced by the Government to “insist on the bare minimum cannot come a moment too soon”.

Unions said that the measures didn’t go far enough.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said Shapps had “failed to grasp the opportunity to adequately stand up to the banditry behaviour of P&O.”

“What has been announced today is far too little, too late, and we are calling for urgent action for speedier, more radical reforms to save the UK seafarer from oblivion.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This plan has gaping holes. It won’t deliver a fair outcome for the 800 sacked workers, and it won’t stop another P&O-style scandal.

“Closing the legal loophole which lets companies pay less than the minimum wage is a start, but we need much more from the Government.”

Nautilus union general secretary Mark Dickinson said: “On any other day this would feel like a victory for our long-running campaign for pay fairness in the UK ferry sector, both domestically and internationally. But today, when we had high hopes for measures to tackle P&O Ferries’ illegal actions, it falls some way short.

“We welcome the jobs platform and the proposal for NMW corridors with neighbouring countries. We are concerned, however, that this proposal could take many months if not years to deliver.

“However, we urge the Secretary of State to prioritise the achievement of this proposal and to ensure the NMW is enforced in the ferry sector.

“We also welcome action against the company’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite. It is clear he is not a fit and proper person, but we had also hoped for action against other members of the P&O Ferries board of directors.”

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, which represents all of the UK’s s main ferry ports, said: “While it’s right the Government and the ferry industry look to improve employment rules and standards, the expectation that port authorities will need to enforce minimum wage rules in the shipping sector could be unworkable. This will place ports in a difficult legal predicament, especially before any legislation is in place.

“The ports industry is genuinely sympathetic towards the situation of the impacted seafarers; however, we would suggest that ports are not the competent authorities to enforce rules on employee salaries or working conditions in the shipping industry.

“We are concerned that the Government is rushing to find a solution without considering the wider implications in the maritime sector.”

P&O Ferries has accused the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) of operating with “an unprecedented level of rigour” after it detained two of its ships.

European Causeway was held in Larne, Northern Ireland, on Friday, while Pride Of Kent was detained in Dover, Kent, on Monday.

Both ships failed inspections of emergency equipment, crew training and documentation.

Trade unions and MPs have expressed fears that the controversial decision threatens safety.

The MCA has insisted it inspects “every foreign-flagged ship in exactly the same robust way”.

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