P&O Ferries CEO admits ignoring UK rules by sacking 786

LONDON (AP) — The head of a ferry operator at the center of a bitter labor dispute stunned British lawmakers on Thursday when he admitted the company chose to ignore the law and employment contracts when she had laid off 786 workers without consulting them in advance.

P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite said under intense questioning by members of a parliamentary committee that the company had decided not to discuss its plans with workers because it knew unions would not would never agree. Lawmakers have repeatedly called the move a deliberate decision to break the law.

The company, which operates in Britain and is owned by a Dubai-based subsidiary of DP World, laid off workers as part of a cost-cutting plan it said was needed to save the business and 2,200 other jobs. The dismissed sailors are to be replaced with cheaper personnel provided by a third-party crewing provider.

“There’s no doubt that we were required to consult the unions,” Hebblethwaite said. “We have chosen not to consult and we will…compensate everyone in full for this.”

The cuts – which came after P&O received millions of pounds in aid from the UK government during the COVID-19 pandemic – have sparked outrage and sparked union protests at UK ports. P&O canceled all services between Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe after last week’s announcement, disrupting the flow of travelers and goods. Many roads are still closed a week later.

Unions representing the redundant workers say P&O is paying new crew members supplied by Malta-based International Ferry Management Ltd. the equivalent of 1.81 pounds ($2.38) an hour. The current UK minimum wage is £8.91.

Unions have long opposed “lay off and rehire” schemes in which companies cut costs by firing workers and then rehiring them on less generous terms. Under UK labor law, such extreme action is only supposed to occur after extensive consultation with employees and unions.

P&O’s decision to ignore these rules prompted scathing questions from members of the UK Parliament committee.

In an exchange, Labor lawmaker Andy McDonald challenged Hebblethwaite to explain why the company ignored its legal obligations to consult with workers.

“When you get in your car and drive down the freeway you see the 70 mph sign do you decide that’s not going to apply to me I’m going to do 90 because I think it’s “Is it important that I do? Is that how you live your life? McDonald asked.

“No,” Hebblethwaite conceded.

Lawmakers later expressed astonishment at the testimony.

Huw Merriman, a ruling Conservative Party MP, said Hebblethwaite should “consider his position”.

“It’s untenable to come to Parliament to say you’ve decided to break the law, you have no regrets,” Merriman told the BBC. “We can’t have businesses run by people like that, so he has to give his card back.”

Hebblethwaite said P&O had lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two years and needed to change its business model to survive. When asked if the company could survive the reputational damage of its recent actions, he acknowledged that it would be difficult.

Last week, Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng warned P&O that the company could face unlimited fines and other penalties if found to have breached laws requiring it to notify the government. in advance before any large-scale layoffs.

P&O responded by saying the company did not believe it had broken the law as all the vessels the crew members worked on were registered outside the UK.

The sailors worked on eight vessels registered in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cyprus. They were employed by three P&O units incorporated in Jersey, a self-governing Crown dependency which is not part of the UK.

Crew members employed by two other subsidiaries based in France and the Netherlands were not made redundant, P&O said.

P&O said it would pay the laid-off workers 13 weeks’ pay to make up for the lack of notice, and another 13 weeks’ pay in lieu of the consultation. Additionally, P&O says terminated crew members will receive 2½ weeks pay for each year of service, instead of the legally required 1½ weeks.

Workers will receive a minimum of 15,000 pounds, and some long-time crew members will receive up to 170,000 pounds, Hebblethwaite said.

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