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Thursday, May 19, 2022

P&O admits to having broken the law by dismissals

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P&O Ferries has admitted breaking labor law when it fired 800 workers without notice.

MPs urged Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite to resign after acknowledging “there is no doubt” the ferry operator was obliged to consult with unions.

The company replaced its crews with cheaper agency workers last week.

Peter Hebblethwaite answering questions in front of MPs (House of Commons/PA)

Hebblethwaite said new crews are paid below the UK minimum wage, except on domestic routes, but insisted this is allowed under international shipping rules.

He also claimed that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps knew about the intention to cut jobs in November last year, although the Department for Transport (DfT) strongly denied this.

Explaining the decision not to consult with unions, Mr Hebblethwaite told a joint session of the House of Commons transport and business select committees: “We assessed that, given the fundamental nature of the change, no union could accept it. and therefore we decided not to consult because a consultation process would have been a farce.

“We didn’t want to put anyone through that.

“We are compensating people fully and upfront for that decision.”

Asked if he was concerned that he had breached his legal obligations as a director of the company, Mr Hebblethwaite said: “I throw my hands up completely, I throw up my hands, which we chose not to consult.

“We didn’t think there was another way to do this.”

Asked if he would make the same decision again with the benefit of hindsight, Hebblethwaite replied, “We weren’t viable before, and I know that if we hadn’t made radical changes, the business would have gone out of business.”

Darren Jones, who chairs the business committee, said after the hearing that he was “shocked” by Hebblethwaite’s evidence.

The Labor MP added: “He should be fined, fired and prosecuted.”

His counterpart on the transport committee, Tory MP Huw Merriman, said Hebblethwaite should “consider his position”.

“It’s untenable to come to Parliament to say you’ve decided to break the law, you don’t regret it,” Merriman told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One.

P&O Ferries ship

P&O Ferries laid off 800 seafarers last week and is replacing them with significantly less paid staff (PA)

Mr Hebblethwaite told MPs that on 22 November last year P&O Ferries owner DP World informed Mr Shapps that the company would change its business model.

The PA news agency understands that Mr Shapps spoke to DP World chief executive Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem on that date, but the DfT insisted the cabinet minister was only told that the ferry operator was facing challenges from competitors.

A DfT spokeswoman said: “DP World made no mention to the Transport Secretary of any changes it would make to P&O Ferries and there was no indication of the completely unacceptable changes it subsequently made.”

The UK minimum wage for people over 23 is £8.91 per hour.

Mr Hebblethwaite, whose annual base salary is £325,000, revealed that the new team’s average hourly wage is just £5.50.

“We are paying higher minimum wages than the ITF (International Transport Workers Federation),” he said.

Andy McDonald, a member of the business committee, noted that it is “below the national minimum wage in this country” and asked “how do you reconcile that?”

Mr. Hebblethwaite responded: “This is an international shipping model that is consistent with models around the world and with our competitors.”

The ferry company boss was silent when McDonald asked “could you keep your lifestyle?” if his salary was so low.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union criticized P&O's actions

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, also appeared before the committees (House of Commons/PA)

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, told MPs that P&O Ferries was guilty of “flagrant breaches of the law”.

He said: “They have done it deliberately and have taken into account what they will have to pay for it.”

He said the company is “threatening and blackmailing” its former employees, telling them they must sign a document or “potentially you won’t get any rewards and you’ll have to give up all your legal rights.”

He added: “This is absolutely outrageous.”

Lynch described UK labor law as “a mess”.

Andrew Burns QC, solicitor for Devereaux Chambers, told MPs that “all vessel employers must notify the appropriate authority 45 days before redundancy”.

He continued: “I understand from what I have been told this morning that the notice was delivered to the appropriate authorities in the countries where the ships are flagged only on the day of the layoffs and not in advance.”

That “appears to be a violation” of labor law, and “(P&O Ferries) may be subject to prosecution,” he said.

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