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Lawbreaking and crew fatigue: P&O Ferries CEO addresses MSPs

29 March 2022

P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite was called 'a failure of a chief executive' by Members of the Scottish Parliament today as he once again admitted to breaking the law in sacking 800 seafarers to bring in agency crew paid below the minimum wage.

Speaking to MSPs on the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee at Holyrood this morning, Mr Hebblethwaite continued with his talking points from the UK Parliament last week, stating:

'We assessed all options available to us but we, the board and I, concluded that all routes led to the closure of the business…. Because it was so radical it was our conclusion that no union could possibly accept our proposal and that any consultation would therefore have been a sham.'

Despite admitting to deliberately breaking the law by failing to consult with unions, he contradicted himself by saying that 'we are very clear that we have not done anything illegal... I said we failed to consult and we are compensating people for that. That is different from illegal.'

Although contracting out to agency workers with no collective bargaining agreement effectively cuts out unions from bargaining on behalf of workers, Mr Hebblethwaite said 'I absolutely respect unions and we will continue to work with the unions we have representing our workers'.

More jobs under threat?

During the session, Mr Hebblethwaite spoke several times about the replacement of seafarers with agency workers as just the first change to the business, saying future changes would be long term and growth oriented.

However, when asked about whether there were plans to get rid of land-based workers at ports in Scotland, he at first said there were no plans to restructure.

Asked if there were any strategic plans either in draft or finalised to do anything to land based staff, he backtracked and said:

'What I think you are referring to is a paper outlining options for us to look at how we ran the Cairnryan port, none of which were taken forward. There is a document that exists to that effect, but it is from a number of months ago. The land-based employees have seen that, as have the unions… we considered a number of options as all businesses do and chose not to take them forward.'

Future lawbreaking?

MSPs were sceptical when Mr Hebblethwaite assured them that this was a unique situation, and that the company would not break the law again.

Asked about the measures that the UK government is planning to announce on Wednesday to address the P&O Ferries crisis, he said 'It is difficult to comment on changes I have no sight of but of course we will comply.'

However, he had previously admitted that the company chose to break the law in order to save money. In a letter this morning to UK Secretary of State Grant Shapps he said that he would not take back the 800 workers because it threatened the business, and that regardless of the minimum wage law P&O Ferries would have to adopt the new crewing model.

Safety in question

Mr Hebblethwaite revealed that the company's new model represents a significant reduction in crewing levels.

'The vast majority of the impact of this decision sits on the Dover-Calais route where we used to operate and pay for four full time crews,' he said.

'This model is a different way of doing business. We will only be paying for two crews, and only paying when they work.'

MSPs pointed out that this arrangement would necessarily result in seafarers being dangerously fatigued and stressed, as they would need to find work for themselves in the other half of the year when they are not employed.

The CEO also dodged questions around the comparable rates of pay and of terms and conditions between the sacked seafarers and new agency workers, merely saying that some level of pension contributions, plus food and accommodation, would still be paid.

Following the news that a second P&O Ferries vessel has failed its inspection by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency this morning, Mr Hebblethwaite said that there were some 'challenges' with bringing vessels back into service but the company would not do so until they were safe. He could not answer when the essential services will be able to resume.

Pay: CEO versus seafarer

Asked about the comparison between his £325,000 salary and the £5.50 per hour he will be paying seafarers, who will now have no job security and no pay except when they are working, he said:

'I don't think seafaring is all about money, I think people love it.'

'I've chosen a particular career and a particular route through that and it's led to me sitting here… I didn’t take a decision that led to me going out as a seafarer.'


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