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P&O Chief Executive Says He Would Make The Decision To Lay Off Staff Again

4 min read

The chief executive of P&O has said he would “make the decision again” to fire staff if it meant preventing the ferry operator from closing.

Speaking at a joint hearing of the Transport and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on Thursday, Peter Hebblethwaite told MPs P&O “would close” if the decision to make 800 ferry workers redundant was not made last week.

“This is the only way for us to save this business and we have moved to a model that is internationally recognised and widely used across the globe and by our competitors,” Hebblethwaite said.

P&O staff were informed they were being made redundant with immediate effect via pre-recorded video message on Thursday last week, with some being removed by security staff hired by the company.

The ferry operator announced it had temporarily halted operations as it laid off staff and said they would be replaced with cheaper agency workers.

On Wednesday Boris Johnson said the government will take legal action against P&O.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions he told the Commons he condemned the “callous behaviour” of the company, saying it was “no way to treat hard-working employees”.

Johnson said P&O could face “fines running into millions” if found guilty and was encouraging workers to take action themselves under the Employment Rights Act.

Speaking at the committee hearing Hebblethwaite offered an apology to laid off staff, their families and the 2,200 P&O employees “who have had to face very difficult questions over the last week or so”.

“I’ve spent the last week in the business talking to our people one to one,” the chief executive said.

Hebblethwaite, who earns a salary of £325,000, confirmed agency staff replacing those who were fired will be paid £5.50 an hour, which is below the UK minimum wage.

The chief executive explained that on ferry routes that are governed byInternational Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) standards, agency workers will be paid above the ITF minimum wage.

On domestic routes, where the company is governed by the British national minimum wage, workers will be paid accordingly. 

When asked whether he could live off a £5.50 per hour wage, Hebblethwaithe gave no answer. 

Throughout the committee hearing MPs expressed disappointment and dismay at P&O's treatment of staff over the past week. 

To begin the session Darren Jones, chair of the BEIS committee, asked Hebblethwaithe: "Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or are you just a shameless criminal?"

P&O did not consult with trade unions or its 800 staff before they were laid off. 

Hebblethwaithe justified the decision not to consult with the explanation that "no union would accept our proposal".

"I'm putting my hands up and saying we did not choose to consult, we believed there was no other way to do it," the chief executive said. 

"We considered every single other option but that would result in the closure of P&O," he added.

"The new model is a fundamentally different operating model - no union would accept our proposals."

Writing for The House magazine, Jones said the incident at P&O has highlighted the urgency for a new employment rights bill to be formed. 

"P&O Ferries didn’t bother (consulting) and its owner, DP World, signed off on the proposals and paid silencing money used to lock sacked workers into a position where they can't enforce their legal rights," the MP remarked. 

"Whether on fire and rehire or the ability for the government to bring action against shameless criminals who feel able to laugh at Parliament whilst taking their performance-related bonuses, it’s clear that ministers have no choice but to make sure an employment rights bill is in the next Queen’s Speech."

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