P&O Ferries will be told by the transport secretary to re-hire the 800 staff it sacked earlier this month.
Its plan to replace them with low-paid workers is to be countered with a new law to soon outlaw the practice.
Grant Shapps will tell the ferry firm’s chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite that new legislation – to be outlined this week – will require all ferry companies operating out of UK ports to pay the national minimum wage, the Financial Times reported.
An aide to the transport secretary told the FT: “He will tell Hebblethwaite that if he doesn’t perform a U-turn, we will force him to do it anyway.
“We hope they will see reason and step back. We will make it impossible for ferry companies to operate from UK ports without paying the national minimum wage.”
The company, which sacked the 800 seafarers less than two weeks ago without any formal consultation, wants to halve its labour costs by replacing crews with international agency staff on an average hourly rate of £5.50.
Shapps plans to write to Hebblethwaite before outlining his legislative proposal to MPs later this week. He will say that he expects staff to be treated with “decency and respect”.
The legislation abolish a loophole in UK law by mandating that ferry companies must pay the British statutory minimum wage, with the main rate rising to £9.50 from April.
Shapps hopes the prospect of the forthcoming legislation will motivate P&O Ferries to reinstate many of the workers in their old jobs even before it comes into effect, according to his aide.
The transport secretary is expected to outline his plans to change the law on Wednesday or Thursday, before MPs leave Westminster for a two-week Easter recess.
Shapps last week pledged to stop a race to the bottom on wages on UK ferry routes and called for Hebblethwaite to resign.
“There are other operators who have been using this model . . . Irish Ferries already went down this route,” he said.
Shapps said his changes would protect “those like Stena and DFDS who are not using this cheap labour, below the minimum wage, model”. Irish Ferries has declined to comment on Shapps’s remarks.
Shapps is due to meet DFDS and Stena to discuss the longer term implications of the government’s plans to impose a minimum wage on seafarers.
Concern has also been raised over the possible disruption to Easter holiday travel plans if P&O Ferries vessels are unable to sail.
Hebblethwaite last week admitted that P&O Ferries had chosen not to consult on the 800 redundancies – a breach that would leave it open to paying “protective awards” of 90 days pay, on top of redundancy payouts, if taken to a tribunal.
P&O Ferries, owned by Dubai-based DP World, has effectively offered to pay this upfront as part of a redundancy package that is more generous than the statutory minimum, while also setting a deadline for staff to accept – making it unlikely that crew members would want to run the risk of pursuing legal action.
The company failed its first inspection of a passenger carrying ferry European Causeway on Friday. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, part of the Department for Transport, impounded a ferry in Northern Ireland, “due to failures on crew familiarisation, vessel documentation and crew training”. P&O Ferries said it would make changes to return the ship to service.
The ferry firm’s boss, appearing before joint government transport and business committees last week, admitted breaking the law, arguing that it needed to dramatically cut costs after racking up £100 million in losses over the past two years.
The company insisted that it came down to a choice of sacking 800 staff, or losing all 3,000 of its UK workforce because it would not be able to stay afloat.
Negotiating with trade unions “would have been a sham”, Hebblethwaite told MPs.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport told the Telegraph: “Ministers are working to understand how we can ensure the continuation of services in collaboration with other operators, including DFDS and Stena.
“We are clear that government does not support the actions taken by P&O Ferries [or] DP World and we are therefore looking to ensure that we may take forward strong working relationships with employers that we consider to behave in a more acceptable manner towards their employees.”
P&O Ferries did not respond to requests from the FT for comment.