One yr on, has P&O Ferries bought away with illegally sacking all its crew? | P&O Ferries

P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite answering questions from MPs committee.

On a vibrant March morning a yr in the past, it took only a few hours for P&O Ferries to carry the careers of its seafaring crew to a stunning halt. Recalling the fleet to port, it summarily sacked 786 folks, many by video message – with international company employees lined as much as take their place.

Politicians have been united in outrage; the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, mentioned: “P&O plainly aren’t going to get away with it.”

A yr on, plainly, P&O has bought away with it. The model might now be synonymous with company cynicism, and a civil investigation rumbles on. However nobody was prosecuted, significant reform is but to occur, P&O’s cross-Channel ferry enterprise is gearing up for one more summer season as market chief – and there was no sanction towards both the agency or its proprietor, DP World.

Nor certainly, towards the administrators: in a second jaw-dropping act the next week, the corporate’s chief govt, Peter Hebblethwaite, instructed MPs the corporate had knowingly acted illegally, and would accomplish that once more. Whereas ministers insisted his head should roll, he stays firmly in his £325,000 a yr submit.

P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite answering questions from MPs committee.
P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite answering questions from MPs committee. {Photograph}: Home of Commons/PA

Few seafarers from P&O have been so fortunate. Sacked staff have been restrained from talking out by non-disclosure clauses in redundancy agreements, signed to a brief deadline that gave traded enhanced payoffs for his or her authorized rights. Steve – not his actual title – was one long-serving seafarer who reluctantly took P&O’s cash. “In the event you didn’t signal, you had so much to lose,” he says.

Nobody on the ships noticed it coming, he says. “I didn’t assume anyone would stoop that low. We’d gone via Covid, all of the restrictions, two rounds of redundancy. Then it seemed like mild on the finish of the tunnel with robust bookings – solely to search out they’d determined to sack all people.

“I’ve been in darkish locations, I can’t get my head round it. I’d at all times been a loyal worker – a long time of labor, then a brief video, you’re sacked. They wished cheaper labour, no rights, nothing, that’s it.”

Invoice – additionally a pseudonym – was a former in a position seaman on the Pleasure of Kent. He says: “It nonetheless rankles, the actual fact they bought away with it. It nonetheless hurts.”

A protest against P&O Ferries' decision to fire hundreds of employees outside the Hoiuses of Parliament on 21 March 2022.
A protest towards P&O Ferries’ resolution to fireplace lots of of staff outdoors the Hoiuses of Parliament on 21 March 2022. {Photograph}: Might James/Reuters

Some, together with officers and engineers, have returned, now a part of the gig economic system on short-term contracts. Invoice has not labored since, and says of former crewmates he is aware of: “Kind of all people who was laid off is struggling, selecting up jobs piecemeal, reverting to company work from a gradual job. Their complete life has been downgraded.”

The one seafarer who didn’t settle was John Lansdown, a sous-chef on the Pleasure of Canterbury. He took P&O to a tribunal and ultimately gained an even bigger sum, which he donated to charity.

“I wanted the cash, but it surely was some extent of precept,” Lansdown says. He needs extra had adopted his path: “If a number of hundred folks have been prepared to carry P&O up in a tribunal for years, they could nicely have thought once more.”

Lansdown first labored for P&O when he was 16 in 1998. He says: “We didn’t simply lose our jobs. We spent half our lives on these ships – the folks we sailed with, good and dangerous, would turn out to be a second household. It’s every part seafarers maintain pricey. P&O valued it at zero and broke all of it.”

P&O ferries Pride of Kent (front), Spirit of Britain (left), and Pride of Canterbury (back right) docked at the Port of Dover in Kent.
P&O ferries Pleasure of Kent (entrance), Spirit of Britain (left), and Pleasure of Canterbury (again proper) docked on the Port of Dover in Kent. {Photograph}: Gareth Fuller/PA

The alternative company crew, drawn from around the globe, earn significantly much less and work longer stints on board – no less than a fortnight of consecutive shifts, relatively than the earlier seven-day rotations. Some are working as much as 17 weeks straight and earn lower than £4 an hour, payslips seen by unions present.

There have been sound causes for the weekly handover, says Steve: “When it’s windy, you’re working an 84-hour week after which attempting to sleep along with your cabin rocking about – you come off and also you’re not match to do something for days. You’re crossing the busiest transport lanes on the planet, you’ve bought to be at a excessive stage of alertness always, and able to react – and that comes via expertise.”

A P&O spokesperson mentioned security is paramount, that the corporate pays above the Worldwide Labour Group minimal and that every one its crew have applicable {qualifications}.

Darren Jones, the Labour MP who chaired the extraordinary Commons listening to of the enterprise and transport committees, vividly remembers Hebblethwaite’s “albeit trustworthy, however exceptional reply” to their questions: “He mentioned, I do know what the regulation is. I broke it on objective. And I’d do it once more. Which basically is saying to parliament, what are you going to do about it?

“However ministers haven’t executed something. These 800 staff haven’t had any type of justice. He’s gotten away with it, and I wouldn’t be stunned if he bought a bonus. The entire thing principally stinks.”

The federal government factors to a nine-point plan introduced within the aftermath, together with the seafarers’ wages invoice, now progressing via parliament.

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A authorities spokesperson mentioned: “We reacted swiftly and decisively towards P&O Ferries’ appalling remedy of its employees.

“Having introduced ahead laws to make sure seafarers are paid no less than an equal to the UK nationwide minimal wage, and establishing a brand new statutory code to discourage ‘fireplace and rehire’, we at the moment are working with our close to European neighbours to additional defend their welfare and pay.”

Unions will not be impressed. Martyn Grey, of Nautilus, says: “The invoice addresses one thing that wasn’t actually the issue, minimal wage laws.

“What P&O did was exploit numerous loopholes in commerce union regulation. The federal government made some very robust statements about holding them to account and ensuring it by no means occurs once more. But it surely may occur.”

A TUC report published on Friday concurs that rogue employers now have a “free move to behave with impunity”. Tim Sharp, who leads on employment rights on the TUC says that regardless of the speak, ministers have “completely failed” to make sure higher office protections: “There may be nothing stopping one other P&O scandal from occurring once more.”

The brand new code of apply goals to discourage ‘fireplace and rehire’ by entitling mistreated staff to 25% extra compensation; arguably, the type of calculation P&O itself made and determined was price it.

An “limitless tremendous” was initially threatened however the Insolvency Service concluded that P&O couldn’t face a prison prosecution – though its ongoing civil investigating may conceivably nonetheless bar Hebblethwaite and others as firm administrators.

A lot of P&O is integrated legally offshore: employment contracts issued from Jersey, ships flagged in Bermuda, Cyprus and the Bahamas. Britain’s wage legal guidelines would solely apply when the ferries enter its waters. There may be hope that bilateral agreements with France – which has already executed extra to handle the difficulty, Grey says – may result in progress for cross-Channel staff.

P&O Ferries says it had been dropping £100m a yr after itself being undercut on the Channel by one other employer, Irish Ferries, and claims the sackings “improved our service and boosted our competitiveness”.

Its proprietor, Dubai-based DP World, this week introduced file income of $1.8bn (£1.5bn), and continues to be a serious participant in Rishi Sunak’s deliberate freeports. P&O wouldn’t affirm if Hebblethwaite had a bonus.

Hebblethwaite declined to be interviewed, however a spokesperson mentioned: “Important modifications within the final yr have saved this enterprise, together with the two,200 jobs we secured in coastal communities throughout the UK. We at the moment are serving the wants of our passenger and freight clients significantly better than ever earlier than.

“Via our new versatile working mannequin, we now have optimised sailings to fulfill buyer demand, one thing we couldn’t have executed earlier than.”

Darren Procter, the nationwide secretary of the RMT who led protests in Dover on the day of the sackings, says: “As an island nation, we ought to be using seafarers on the identical type of circumstances as people on land. The exploitation is hidden away.”

A yr on, with out significant motion towards P&O, he says: “Now, each seafarer is beneath risk.”