P&O Ferries’ fire-and-rehire boss says he couldn’t live on wage he pays his staff

Business

The boss of P&O Ferries – known for its fire-and-rehire of nearly 800 workers – has said he could not live on the less than £5-per-hour some of his staff are paid.

The ferry company is paying employees an average of £5.20 an hour, two years after making 786 people redundant, and rehiring cheaper workers, P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite told the Commons’ Business and Trade Committee.

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Some earn as little as £4.87 an hour, Mr Hebblethwaite added, as MPs on the committee presented him with evidence that some staff were paid as low as £2.90 an hour for their first eight hours of work.

P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite appears before a committee in Westminster
Image:
P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite

During exchanges, committee chair Liam Byrne asked Mr Hebblethwaite: “Do you think you could live on £4.87 an hour?”

Mr Hebblethwaite replied: “No, I couldn’t,” before admitting he earned £508,000, including a bonus of £183,000 last year.

While he said he could not live on such pay, the CEO said the rates were “considerably ahead of international minimum standards”.

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“These are international seafarers who we are, or our crewing agent is, recruiting from an international field, and we pay substantially ahead of the international seafaring minimum wage,” he added.

The UK national minimum wage is £11.44 since last month for people aged 21 and over.

But P&O Ferries uses maritime workers employed by an overseas agency, who work on ships which are foreign-registered in international waters, so the rates do not apply.

When he last appeared before the committee in March 2022, Mr Hebblethwaite said P&O Ferries workers would receive at least £5.15 every hour.

“People who could work anywhere in the world on any ship choose to come over to us and make a choice to come back,” he said on Tuesday.

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P&O chose to break the law by not consulting before sacking 800 staff because it knew

Fire-and-rehire fallout

Despite the move to get rid of the nearly 800 staff in March 2022, Mr Hebblethwaite said P&O Ferries has always complied with national and international law.

That decision is still under investigation by the government.

While a criminal investigation conducted by the insolvency service concluded in August 2022 that it would not commence criminal proceedings, a civil investigation by the government body is ongoing.

“I confirmed that this decision was legal,” Mr Hepplethwaite added. “That is not to say I don’t regret it, I regret it. I am deeply sorry for the impact it had on 786 seafarers and their families. I wish we’d never had to have made that decision.

“We will never make that decision again.”

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Had it not been made, Mr Hebblethwaite said the operation of P&O Ferries would have been at risk.

“Without that difficult decision I would not be here today and we would not have been able to preserve the 2,000 jobs that we have been able to preserve.”


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Workers rights

Despite the widespread condemnation and political lens that zeroed in on the company, a seafarers’ rights charter has not yet been signed by P&O Ferries.

Mr Hebblethwaite couldn’t say whether workers were allowed to leave the ship during a 17-week working period and will write to the committee with an answer.

“I believe they are, but I believe there are some technicalities,” he answered.

Responding to the evidence, the head of the TUC (Trade Union Congress) Paul Nowak said: “It beggars belief that P&O Ferries has faced no sanctions for its misdeeds and that its parent company DP World has continued to be awarded government contracts.

“For too long, parts of our labour market have resembled the Wild West – with many seafarers particularly exposed to hyper-exploitation and a lack of enforceable rights.

“It’s time to drag our outdated employment laws into the 21st century. Without this, another P&O Ferries scandal is on the cards.”

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