Wednesday, August 17, 2022

P&O chief should resign over crew sackings, says UK transport secretary


The UK’s transport secretary has called for the boss of P&O Ferries to resign, slamming his admission that the company wilfully broke the law to sack hundreds of crew last week as “brazen” and “breathtaking”.

Grant Shapps said under-fire Peter Hebblethwaite “should go” after he told a committee of MPs on Thursday that P&O deliberately chose to pay staff off rather than to launch a consultation with unions before it fired nearly 800 crew.

“I thought anybody who heard his testimony to parliament yesterday will have been amazed, gobsmacked. It was brazen, it was breathtaking it was arrogant,” Shapps told BBC Radio 4 on Friday.

“He talked about how they deliberately and knowingly broke the law, and in my view he really cannot continue to lead a company that has deliberately gone out of its way to use, and to create, a loophole in order to sack their staff summarily in order to employ people below the minimum wage. He should go.”

P&O has replaced all of its UK-based seafarers with agency crew who will be paid an average of £5.50 an hour, well below the UK minimum wage but not illegal because its ships operate in international waters.

Shapps said the government would bring a “package of measures” to parliament next week in response to P&O’s actions that would “force them to U-turn”.

He said the government would legislate to force ferry companies to pay the minimum wage when regularly sailing into UK ports.

“There’s no reason why, onshore, you should pay the minimum wage and as soon as you’re in the water . . . you shouldn’t. That’s wrong. We will seek to change the law, both by primary and by secondary legislation,” he told LBC Radio.

Ministers would also write to ports to say they should bring in “conditions of use”, and push for international agreements on pay on ferry routes.

P&O’s new crewing structure will save the company 50 per cent on its crewing costs, which Hebblethwaite said was the only way to “save the company”.

But his testimony heaped pressure on P&O and its Dubai-based owners DP World, while its cross-channel ferries remain in port to train the new crews more than a week after the disruption began.

Amid a torrent of criticism from MPs on Thursday, the chief executive was asked by Darren Jones, chair of the business committee: “Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or are you just a shameless criminal?”

Ministers have indicated they have limited means of pursuing P&O through the courts over the sackings, and there is uncertainty over whether some penalties apply to the maritime sector.

“I am afraid that Hebblethwaite is simply the symptom. The cause is the underlying legal model,” said Alan Bogg, professor of Labour law at Bristol University.

“There has been longstanding public recognition of enforcement weaknesses in the UK, and a longstanding unwillingness to address them,” he said.

P&O declined to comment.

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