The boss of P&O Ferries has denied that his company suffered reputational damage in the wake of its sudden sacking of 800 crew in mid-March.
CEO Peter Hebblethwaite told the BBC yesterday this week that he was “incredibly sorry” for the impact felt by hundreds of staff who were dismissed by the firm without notice.
But he maintained that because of the financial problems facing the ferry operator that sackings were “the route we only deemed possible”.
He said that the national outrage over the decision – which he conceded broke UK laws over consultation – had not resulted in a reputational hit, saying that this was not what the company had experienced and that it was now seeing some “really encouraging bookings coming through”.
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The 800 seafarers were replaced them with foreign agency workers paid less than the minimum wage, with long-serving crew being asked to leave ships under escort of security personnel. Many left personal belongings on board such was the haste in which the move was made.
P&O Ferries has always maintained the move would ensure the future of the business.
Hebblethwaite said: “I’m incredibly sorry, on the decision we took had a material impact on a number of our ex-employees. And I do regret that,” he added.
However, the P&O Ferries boss insisted the move was “the route we only deemed possible for us to take”, and part of “a difficult decision and repositioning for a better future”.
He reiterated that the new below-UK national minimum wage rates were consistent with global maritime standards but that if the law was changed in the UK and the firm had to increase pay in order to operate, P&O Ferries would “absolutely do what we are required to do by law”.
The government has proposed to give UK ports the power to deny entry to ships paying crew below the minimum wage, but the British Ports Authority has described the plan as unworkable.
Hebblethwaite conceded that some sacked crew members’ personal belongings were still on board some of the ferries and had gone missing, adding P&O Ferries was “trying very hard” to return items to former workers.
He said the business was likely to have a “glorious” future with the return of customers and the delivery of new high-tech ferries next year.
The UK government’s Insolvency Service is currently investigating P&O Ferries over whether it flouted UK and maritime laws and earlier this month, transport secretary Grant Shapps repeated his earlier calls for Hebblethwaite to resign, telling MPs on the Commons transport committee “he will have to go”, adding that it was “completely unsustainable” for him to keep his role.
Martyn Gray, executive officer at trade union Nautilus International, said: “P&O Ferries and Peter Hebblethwaite not only treated their crew with contempt but demonstrated disdain for the rule of law of this country.”
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