Transport secretary Grant Shapps has told P&O Ferries to hand back the £11 million it received to furlough staff during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ferry firm has finally begun to resume cross-Channel journeys after it sacked 800 seafarers and replaced them with cheaper agency workers paid below the minimum wage.
On 26 April, the Spirit Of Britain was the first P&O Ferries vessel to sail on the Dover-Calais route, after being detained for nearly a fortnight by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency over safety concerns. Three other ships are yet to receive permission to sail.
Shapps also repeated his call for P&O Ferries boss Peter Hebblethwaite to resign saying his position was “completely unsustainable”. He told the Commons transport select committee that the government would introduce legislation designed to force ferry firms that use UK ports to pay the UK minimum wage.
MPs reminded Shapps that the government had said P&O Ferries would face unlimited fines, but the transport secretary indicated that the company may not face any legal sanction, saying: “The biggest penalty is that they are still not properly operating … They are not able to make money.”
P&O Ferries redundancies
An Insolvency Service investigation into the legal implications of P&O Ferries’ collective redundancies is under way.
Shapps said P&O Ferries would need to do “three things to get out of this mess”: sacking Hebblethwaite, paying minimum wage to crew and repaying £11m of furlough money.
“I don’t think it’s right that having claimed that money, they then sacked the workers in such a premeditated way,” he said.
The new P&O Ferries crew are paid an average of just £5.50 per hour. This is below the UK’s national minimum wage of £9.50 per hour, but in line with international maritime law.
A spokesman for P&O Ferries said in response to Shapps: “The actions our company took on 17 March, while unpopular, saved 2,200 jobs and a British company.”
The spokesman said calls for Hebblethwaite to go “need to stop” and urged the government to engage in a “constructive dialogue” after two “very difficult years for business”.
He added: “Despite the attempts from some parties to undermine our business by creating false rumours and uninformed commentary, our morale is high and our spirit as a company is strong.”
National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch, said that Shapps’ words were empty. He was “in fact, trying to rehabilitate the embattled ferry company”.
He added: “The transport secretary is avoiding his responsibilities by not impounding P&O vessels, reinstating staff on union contracts and getting the government to take over the running of the company.
“Only then will it be able to have safely staffed vessels with decent pay and conditions which the public can feel confident in using.”
On Monday, head of the Scottish Trades Union Congress Pat Rafferty, told his organisation’s annual conference in Aberdeen: “Hebblethwaite should be struck off the directors’ register and put behind bars
“That would send a clear message to employers – act irresponsibly towards workers and face the possibility that you will be jailed.”
Hebblethwaite has said he has not taken a cut to his £325,000 salary, after criticism for replacing his staff with agency workers who receive less than minimum wage.
Earlier this week P&O Ferries denied it had attempted to cut the pay of the agency workers it had recruited.