P&O will have “little choice” but to reverse its decision to sack 800 staff under new measures due to be put before MPs this week, the company has been told by the transport secretary.
In a letter to company boss Peter Hebblethwaite, Grant Shapps said proposals being brought to parliament would “ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions”.
“Through that package, I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage,” the transport secretary added.
He said this would leave P&O “one further opportunity” to offer all 800 workers their jobs back on previous terms, conditions and wages – if they want them back.
Mr Shapps said: “To be clear, our package of measures will prevent the law being broken, even when knowingly attempted.
“With this point in mind, I would also suggest that the deadlines imposed on seafarers to respond to your redundancy offer by 31 March is dropped.
“Given that we intend to ensure such outcomes are prevented by laws – which we will ensure that you cannot simply choose to ignore – I believe you will be left with little choice but to reverse your decision in any case.”
P&O’s Dover-Calais route remains suspended following the sacking of their workers.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said it was inspecting the operator’s Pride of Kent ship at the port of Dover to ensure it is safe – with a full inspection required at a later date before it can resume passenger and cargo services.
Calls for P&O boss to resign
In Mr Shapps’ letter to the company’s boss, made public on Monday, he wrote: “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.”
The two chairs of the Commons committee Mr Hebblethwaite gave evidence to last week have also called for him to resign and called on the government to prosecute P&O Ferries and remove its licence to operate in the UK after he admitted the company broke employment law.
Mr Hebblethwaite told the MPs last week: “There is absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do so.”
Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport select committee, and Darren Jones, chair of the business select committee, wrote in a letter to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Monday: “P&O Ferries Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite flaunted his contempt for the law.
“He is not a fit and proper person to run a company that operates critical national infrastructure. He must resign and be struck off as a company director.”
Rival ferry operators step in
The two letters were made public as bosses from rival ferry operators DFDS and Stena Lines were due to meet government officials amid concerns over chaos at ports during the Easter holidays.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said ministers were “working to understand how we can ensure the continuation of services in collaboration with other operators”.
Stena’s chief operating officer head of fleet management and government affairs, Ian Hampton, is understood to be attending, along with union representatives.
Hundreds of P&O workers were sacked without notice on 17 March, and replacements were hired on minimum wage in a move that angered unions, politicians, and customers of the 150-year-old shipping brand.
There were protests at ports in Dover, Liverpool, and Hull on Saturday with some demonstrators chanting: “P&O, shame on you.”
Mr Hebblethwaite had denied the company broke criminal law but on Thursday he admitted P&O broke employment law by failing to consult with unions and staff.
Chancellor says no way to stop DP World running freeports
Speaking at a Treasury committee on Monday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the government’s relationship with P&O’s parent company, Dubai-based DP World, was being reviewed following the scandal.
However, he said there was “no contractual route” to remove DP World as the operator of two freeports in Southampton and London Gateway – for which it will receive £50m of taxpayers’ money.
Mr Sunak said it was not as simple as taking the contract away from them as lots of different companies benefit from them running the freeports and he said he could not stop a company from owning a site.
He also added there was “no legal way” to get P&O to give back the £10 million it claimed in furlough money for around 1,000 workers during the pandemic.
Study predicted £309m cost to keep P&O going during consultation
Meanwhile, the PA news agency reported that P&O Ferries conducted a study last year examining options to keep the company going.
The study calculated a cost of £309m to sustain the business for at least three months while consulting with staff over job losses.
It decided against a full staff consultation over the planned jobs cuts, with a source telling PA that a long consultation could have disrupted the business and affected customer confidence.
P&O believes that losing the 800 workers has protected the business long-term and the jobs of 2,200 other employees.
‘We needed fundamental change’ – P&O
A spokesperson for the company 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.”
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: “The campaign to get the workers back on the ships, operating these crucial ferry links safely, goes on and the company needs to face up to the hard facts and take responsibility for their grotesque actions.”