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How P&O Ferries broke the law – and what the consequences might be | P&O Ferries

What exactly has P&O Ferries done?

Last week it summarily sacked 786 crew working on ships sailing from UK ports, telling them that this was their last day in employment and that they would be replaced by new crew brought in by a third party.Ministers expressed their immediate outrage – but have not yet followed up with any action.

But isn’t it illegal?

Yes – but possibly not as illegal as you might think. There are two specific areas where P&O clearly admits to have flouted employment law, but neither necessarily lead to sanctions from the UK government. Ministers are currently taking advice from the Insolvency Service on possible action. Despite the prime minister claiming that P&O Ferries would be prosecuted under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992, no action has yet been taken.

What exactly are the dodgy bits?

An employer has a) to give 45 days notice to the relevant authorities when planning to make significant redundancies, and b) to consult the workforce, normally via unions.

'Are you just a shameless criminal?': P&O Ferries boss questioned over mass sackings – video
‘Are you just a shameless criminal?’: P&O Ferries boss questioned over mass sackings – video

And what did P&O Ferries do?

On point a), P&O Ferries argues that it did not have to notify the UK government since an amendment to the law in 2018 – and it didn’t. However, it also admits it did not give notice, as legally required, to the flag states for its ships, which are registered in Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas. The three flag states, which under international maritime law regulate the ships, require 30-45 days notice but were only told of P&O’s plans on the day. Given the long history of flag states being unable to police crimes onboard ships in international waters, any intervention or sanction appears unlikely.

What about the consultation?

P&O Ferries admits it deliberately broke the law. In astonishingly candid testimony to MPs this week, chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite said: “There’s absolutely no doubt we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.”

Why did they not consult unions?

Because it was cheaper to break the law and take any potential fine – if indeed, one comes. Hebblethwaite said unions would not accept the changes and therefore P&O Ferries would give higher payoffs to sacked crew, effectively more than crew could win from tribunals despite their illegal treatment. The firm also demanded crew accept swiftly without discussion or lose the offer.

Hebblethwaite said the action was to “save the company”, which was losing money, and admitted it would halve crew costs. Replacement crew will work different schedules than agreed with unions, allowing fewer overall staff, and be paid an hourly rate starting at £5.15 via a new agency abroad rather than an average £36,000 a year to those sacked from the Jersey agency.

'Disgraceful': Unions describe how P&O Ferries enforced mass sackings – video
‘Disgraceful’: Unions describe how P&O Ferries enforced mass sackings – video

Is there nothing the UK government can do?

The maritime minister, Robert Courts, suggested that ministers are constrained by the law. However, other MPs pointed out that parliament’s role is to pass new law, and urged emergency legislation.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, pledged new legislation next week to force the company to pay workers minimum wage on all routes – currently P&O say they will only do so when sailing between two UK ports, namely on its route between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Were all crew fired?

No. About 600 people employed by P&O Ferries recruitment divisions in Calais and Rotterdam, on French and Dutch contracts, remain in work.

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