What exactly did P&O Ferries do?
Last week he summarily sacked 786 crew working on ships sailing from UK ports, telling them it was their last day of employment and they would be replaced by new crew brought in by a third party. Ministers expressed immediate outrage – but have yet to follow up with any action.
But isn’t that illegal?
Yes – but maybe not as illegal as you might think. There are two specific areas where P&O clearly admits to breaching employment law, but neither necessarily leads to sanctions from the UK government. Ministers are currently consulting the Insolvency Service on possible measures. Although the Prime Minister has claimed that P&O Ferries will be prosecuted under Section 194 of the Trade Unions and Industrial Relations Act 1992, no action has yet been taken.
What exactly are questionable pieces?
An employer must (a) give 45 days’ notice to the relevant authorities when considering major redundancies, and (b) consult with the workforce, normally through trade unions.
And what did P&O Ferries do?
On point (a), P&O Ferries argues that it did not have to inform the UK government since an amendment to the law in 2018 – and it has not. However, he also admits that he failed to notify, as required by law, the flag states of his vessels, which are registered in Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas. The three flag states, which under international maritime law regulate ships, require 30 to 45 days’ notice, but were only told of P&O’s plans the same day. Given the long history of flag states failing to control crimes on board ships in international waters, any intervention or punishment seems unlikely.
What about consultation?
P&O Ferries admits deliberately breaking the law. In surprisingly candid testimony to MPs this week, chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite said: ‘There is no doubt that we were required to consult the unions. We chose not to.
Why did they not consult the unions?
Because it was cheaper to break the law and take any potential fines – if indeed one comes. Hebblethwaite said the unions would not agree to the changes and so P&O Ferries would award the dismissed crew higher payouts, in fact more than the crew could win in court despite their unlawful treatment. The company also asked the crew to quickly accept without discussion or lose the offer.
Hebblethwaite said the action was to “save the business”, which was losing money, and admitted it would cut crew costs in half. The replacement team will work different hours to those agreed with unions, allowing for fewer overall staff, and will be paid an hourly rate from £5.15 through a new overseas agency rather than an average of £36,000 a year for those made redundant from the Jersey agency.
Can’t the British government do anything?
Maritimes Minister Robert Courts has suggested ministers are bound by law. However, other MPs stressed that the role of parliament is to pass new law and called for emergency legislation.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has promised new legislation next week to force the company to pay workers minimum wage on all roads – currently P&O says they will only do so when navigating between two British ports, namely on its route between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Have all the crew members been fired?
No. Around 600 people employed by the P&O Ferries recruitment services in Calais and Rotterdam, under French and Dutch contracts, remain active.