Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, has given P&O’s management “one further opportunity” to rehire the 800 staff it sacked this month before the government brings in a “comprehensive package of measures” designed to force the company to reappoint its British seafarers.
In a letter to Peter Hebblethwaite, chief executive of P&O Ferries – sent on Monday morning – Shapps said the government would not stand by while the company “brazenly ignored” the requirement to treat its staff with due respect.
“I believe you will be left with little choice but to reverse your decision in any case,” he wrote. “A reversal at this point may also go some way in starting to repair your firm’s reputation with the public, many of whom will show their own disgust at your treatment of workers by simply choosing an alternative operator.”
P&O, which fired 800 workers this month without formal consultation, wants to halve its labor costs by replacing crews with international agency staff at an average hourly rate of £ 5.50.
But the government will this week bring forward legislation forcing all ferry companies operating out of UK ports to pay the national minimum wage. “On top of reviewing contracts you hold with the government and asking the Insolvency Service to invest your actions, this week I will go further,” Shapps wrote in Monday’s letter.
“I will be bringing a comprehensive package of measures to Parliament to ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions. . . I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage. ”
The legislation will remove a loophole in UK law by ruling that ferry companies must pay the British statutory minimum wage, whose main rate will rise to £ 9.50 from April.
Hebblethwaite admitted last week that P&O 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. The company has said it lost £ 100mn last year, which had to be covered by parent company DP World of Dubai.
Shapps told the chief executive he had a final opportunity to immediately offer all 800 workers their jobs back on previous terms, conditions and wages – “should they indeed want them back at this stage”.
Mark Dickinson, Secretary General of Nautilus, a union representing sacked P&O workers, supported calls to reinstate workers on the same terms.
However, he said some workers would not be prepared to return. P&O Ferries said last week that it was in discussions with 575 of the 786 sacked seafarers.
“Based on those figures, it seemed likely that significant numbers of members would be looking for employment elsewhere,” he said.
Shapps also called on the company to drop a March 31 deadline for seafarers to respond to its redundancy offer.
He said P&O had a long and proud history and said ministers were keen to help the company rebuild the “trust that has been lost”.
P&O did not immediately respond to a request for comment.