New law will leave P&O with ‘little choice’ but to rehire sacked workers

THE UK Government’s transport minister has warned P&O ferries that he will bring in new laws leaving the disgraced firm with “little choice but to reverse” the decision to sack 800 workers

Grant Shapps told the company’s Chief Executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, that he had “one last opportunity” to undo the mass firing and lift this week’s deadline for the employees to sign redundancy and non-disclosure agreements.

The ferry firm has already replaced staff with international agency workers paid less than the minimum wage.

A loophole in UK law effectively means that some of the new seafarers already hired are being paid as little as £5.50 an hour. 

Mr Shapps’ new legislation will close that loophole and force all ferry companies operating out of British ports to pay the UK’s statutory minimum wage, whose main rate will rise to £9.50 from April.

The minister’s ultimatum comes ahead of Mr Hebblethwaite’s appearance before the Scottish Parliament’s transport and net-zero committee on Tuesday morning.

MSPs have demanded an “urgent update” from the firm on what the impact will be on staff based in Scotland and on the Cairnryan-Larne route.

Over the weekend, a vessel operated by P&O Ferries and staffed by agency workers was detained in the Northern Irish port due to “failures on crew familiarisation, vessel documentation and crew training”, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said.

Last week, in front of the Transport Committee in the House of Commons, Mr Hebblethwaite admitted that his firm had broken the law by dismissing workers without consultation. He said: “There’s absolutely no doubt we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.”

In his letter to the ferry firm executive, shared on Twitter, Mr Shapps said he was set to bring in a package of measures to “block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying less than the minimum wage”.

He said: “The past week has left the reputation of P&O Ferries and, I’m afraid, you personally in tatters.

“Not only were your letters of 22 March to the Business Secretary and myself wholly unsatisfactory, your appearance at the Transport Select Committee, during which you brazenly admitted to breaking employment law, demonstrated beyond doubt your contempt for workers who have given years of service to your company.

“There is no excuse for this behaviour, and as I said publicly on Friday, I believe your position as chief executive, and indeed as a company director, has become untenable.”

Mr Shapps added: “I will be bringing a comprehensive package of measures to Parliament to ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions in the way that Parliament and this Government already intended. Through that package, I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage.”

He also called on Mr Hebblethwaite to offer “all 800 workers their jobs back on their previous terms, conditions and wages.”

Meanwhile, the chairs of the transport and business committees in the House of Commons have written a joint letter to Mr Shapps demanding Mr Hebblethwaite be struck off as a company director as “not a fit and proper person”.

A spokesperson for P&O said: “Over 90% of seafarers affected are in discussions to progress with the severance offers.

“We are sorry to the people affected and their families for the impact it’s had on them. They’ve lost their jobs and there is anger and shock, which we completely understand.

“We needed fundamental change to make the business viable. This was an incredibly difficult decision that we wrestled with but once we knew it was the only way to save the business, we had to act.

“All other routes led to the loss of 3,000 jobs and the closure of P&O Ferries.

“In making this hard choice we have guaranteed the future viability of P&O Ferries and secured Britain’s trading capacity.

“We are committed to ensuring the continued and ongoing support for all those former and current employees affected.”

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