Employment

P&O Ferries sackings: What you need to know

P&O Ferries' chief executive admitted the company broke the law when it sacked 800 of its workers without notice.

P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite faced MPs in parliament. Image: Parliamentlive.tv

The CEO of P&O Ferries has admitted the company knowingly broke the law when it fired 800 workers without any notice.

In a Commons hearing on Thursday, Peter Hebblethwaite argued the sackings were necessary to keep the business afloat, telling MPs: “I would make this decision again, I’m afraid.”

The RMT union, who represent the sacked staff, described the move as “one of the most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations”, and are calling for Hebblethwaite to be immediately disqualified as a company director.

The sackings have been condemned across the political spectrum. Here’s everything you need to know about the scandal.

What did P&O do?

On Thursday March 17, P&O Ferries staff received a short, pre-recorded video in which they were told: “Your final day of employment is today”. Staff say they did not receive anything in writing.

UK law requires any employer planning 20 or more staff redundancies within a 90-day period to consult with staff, as well as trade union representatives.

Additionally, companies planning to make more than 100 redundancies must inform the business secretary 45 days in advance. Hebblethwaite told MPs that transport secretary Grant Schapps had been informed in November, but maritime minister Robert Courts denied this, saying that “there was a discussion about challenges to the business, but not any more than that”.

One employee told Channel 4 News that they were rushed off the boat so quickly that they had to throw their belongings in a binbag.   

Employees on some ships refused to leave. In Dover, they were removed by security professionals. The BBC has seen details of a contract for handcuff-trained staff, beginning two days before the sacking.

“Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force”, said P&O Ferries in a statement.

Staff aboard the Pride of Hull occupied their vessel for five hours, only leaving after negotiations between P&O and RMT.

The government was told about the plans the night before, but did not intervene.

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What have P&O Ferries said since?

In a joint hearing of the transport and business committee a week after the sackings, Hebblethwaite apologised for the firm’s actions, but insisted that they were the only way to keep the company from going under.

“I have lots of businesses come to my committee telling me that, but they all consult before they make their staff redundant”, retorted business committee chair MP Darren Jones.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that,” admitted Hebblethwaite, telling incredulous MPs: “It was our assessment that the change was of such magnitude that no union could accept our proposals.”

DP World, who owns P&O, paid £270m in shareholder dividends in 2020. In the same year, P&O Ferries received almost £15m of taxpayers money.

Who will crew the ships now?

P&O Ferries is hiring replacement workers. RMT said that crews at Dover have been replaced with “Indian seafarers being paid 2.38 dollars (£1.80) an hour”.

Many of P&O Ferries’ vessels are registered in Cyprus, and therefore do not need to pay the UK minimum wage.

“The news that the seafarers now on ships in British ports are to be paid 2.38 dollars an hour is a shocking exploitation of those Seafarers and another gut-wrenching betrayal of those who have been sacked”, said RMT general secretary Mick Lynch yesterday.

“The rule of law and acceptable norms of decent employment and behaviour have completely broken down beneath the white cliffs of Dover and in other ports yet five days into this national crisis the government has done nothing to stop it.”

Hebblethwaite told MPs replacement crews will actually be given a starting rate of £5.15 per hour. The UK minimum wage is currently £8.91 for anyone over 22, and rises to £9.50 an hour on April 1.

What has the response been?

The sacking prompted protests at ports across the country, as well as demonstrations near parliament, and outside DP World’s London offices.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh called the sacking “a national scandal”. Speaking in the Commons she said: “The truth is that P&O Ferries and DP World did it precisely because they thought they could get away with it. They knew that they could exploit the UK’s shamefully weak employment law… And they knew that when they did, the government would not stand in their way.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps agreed that P&O’s treatment of staff was “shameful and utterly unacceptable”.

“This is about having respect for employees, about employers having the common decency to engage with their workforce”, he told the Commons.

“Regrettably, redundancies are sometimes inescapable, but there is no excuse for what we saw last Thursday.”

Kicking off the committee hearing a week on from the sackings, MP Jones, wasted no time in letting Hebblethwaite know what he thought of the scandal, asking him: “Mr Hebblethwaite when I was reading your biography it seemed pretty light on your experience as a chief executive officer. Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or are you just a shameless criminal?”

What next?

The staff have been offered what P&O Ferries describe as “enhanced” redundancy packages of at least £15,000, but only on the condition that they sign non-disclosure agreements – a move condemned by Shapps. This will prevent sacked staff from taking any legal action. The company gave staff until Thursday (March 24) to accept the packages, forcing them to decide before the legal facts have been firmly established.

The government is reviewing all contracts they have with the firm, and face intense pressure to take action against the firm.

It remains likely that the firm will face claims for unfair dismissal, with employment lawyers warning that the company may have broken several laws. Unions representing the workers have also been consulting lawyers, with the aim of taking legal action.

Boris Johnson said on Wednesday – four times – that the government would be taking P&O to court for breaching the Trade Union Act, a claim the government seemed to row back on within 24 hours. Labour’s shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry has now written to Boris Johnson demanding to know whether the company will face legal action, or whether the prime minister was “playing fast and loose with the truth”.

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