Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O Ferries’ chief executive, has admitted the company broke UK law by not consulting unions about the sudden mass sacking of almost 800 seafarers last week.
He was grilled by MPs at a joint hearing of the transport and business committees on Thursday (March 24) after the controversial move, which saw many of the staff made redundant on a Teams live video call.
Darren Jones, the Labour MP who chairs the business select committee, opened the session by telling Hebblethwaite that the CEO’s biography seemed “pretty light” on experience.
“Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or just a shameless criminal?” he asked.
Hebblethwaite responded with an apology to the seafarers, their families and the 2,200 employees “who have had to face very difficult questions”.
He said P&O Ferries has lost an “unsustainable amount of money” and would have had to close the business if it had not changed its business model – which required the firing of UK seafarers to be replaced by agency workers on lower wages.
Andy McDonald MP, former shadow transport secretary, asked if P&O Ferries had a duty to consult with the unions in good time over the redundancies because of the Trade Union Act of 1992.
Hebblethwaite said: “There is absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.”
McDonald interrupted: “You chose to break the law?”
Hebblethwaite continued: “Because we chose not to consult…we will compensate everybody in full for that.”
McDonald asked: “Do you get in your car and drive down the motorway and see the 70mph sign and decide, ‘That’s not going to apply to me, I’m going to do 90 because I think it’s important that I do that’? Is that how you go about your life?”
Hebblethwaite replied: “No.”
He explained that the change was of “such a magnitude” that no union would possibly accept the proposal.
Hebblethwaite told MPs that the new crews were earning on average about £5.50 per hour – below the UK’s national minimum wage of £8.91 – and that his annual basic salary is £325,000 plus bonuses.
The average sacked seafarer salary was £36,000 and they will receive about £46,000 in compensation.
McDonald also asked the firm’s boss about non-disclosure agreements that staff who accept payouts are expected to sign.
“Are you going to rescind those because, quite frankly, the members of this committee think this is absolute thuggery and criminality,” he asked the P&O Ferries boss.
“You’re behaving like gangsters, to blackmail people into the situation. Will you withdraw those NDAs and let people have the freedoms that we all enjoy?”
Hebblethwaite said it was a “standard confidentiality clause” in place to protect both sides.
Paul Howell said he found it “bizarre” that P&O Ferries had chosen to break the law – and was now a “laughing stock”.
Hebblethwaite said sales were currently suspended but some passengers had cancelled their forward bookings.
“On Dover-Calais, we have taken a particularly large decline,” he said.
Jesper Kristensen, chief operations officer at Dubai-based DP World, the parent company, told MPs by video link that the new business model was the only alternative to liquidation.
The committee heard DP World owed £146 million to a maritime pension fund but had spent £147 million sponsoring a golf tournament and had paid shareholders $376 million in the past two years.
Jones later said on Twitter that he was amazed by Hebblethwaite’s comments at the hearing.
“I’m amazed that the P&O CEO came to Parliament today, confirmed he wilfully broke the law, decided to pay off the sacked workers but make them sign gagging clauses and that he would do it all again. He should be fined, struck off and prosecuted. Shameless.”
Picture credit: Parliamentlive.tv