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‘Rocking the boat’: the disgrace of P&O Ferries

Stern action is needed to counter companies who believe breaking the law is justifiable

“What does a chief executive have to do to get fired these days,” asked Oliver Shah in The Sunday Times. Peter Hebblethwaite, boss of P&O Ferries, appears to be doing “his damnedest”. He finally admitted before a committee of MPs last week that the company had been legally required to consult unions before laying off 800 seafarers – but “chose not to do so”, and would do the same again. No union, he said by way of justification, could “possibly accept” those mass redundancies. For most corporate leaders, such blatant flouting of the law would be “terminal”. But Hebblethwaite apparently continues to enjoy the support of P&O’s Dubai parent company DP World. And why not? So long as he remains “a convenient human sponge, soaking up outrage”, he remains useful. After that, he too will be tossed aside. If you want to see who’s really responsible, look beyond P&O’s “captain calamity” to his “overlord”, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem.

Hebblethwaite claimed that P&O Ferries wouldn’t be viable unless it replaced its UK crew with foreign agency workers paid as little as £5.15 an hour, said Nils Pratley in The Guardian. No doubt he’s correct about the millions P&O has lost amid the pandemic and energy crisis. But this was a “brazen attempt” to claim that protecting a wealthy parent company’s investment was “more important than staying within the law”. Seafarers, meanwhile, have found an “unlikely ally”, said Oliver Gill in The Daily Telegraph. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps not only wants the 800 P&O workers reinstated; he is also determined “to ram through changes that force all ferry operators to pay the minimum wage”, of over £9.50 an hour from April. This would close an employment law loophole that ferry operators have been exploiting for years by being registered abroad.

If nothing else, the P&O debacle has made clear that the law needed an overhaul, said Sarah O’Connor in the FT. The sackings have “given the lie to the narrative” that Britain was “taking back control” after Brexit to create “a high-wage economy” where workers aren’t undercut by low-paid migrants. If Shapps gets his way, “fares will certainly rise”, said Alistair Osborne in The Times. “But there are safety risks in having ships crewed by underpaid staff.” Hebblethwaite has apparently given “a two-fingered salute” to the minister’s demand that P&O’s workers are reinstated. In which case, why not revoke its operating licence? Or threaten the millions in tax breaks that DP World will receive for operating two proposed freeports in London and Southampton. Unless P&O “stops rocking the boat”, ministers should “kick it off” the plan. 

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