A plan by P&O Ferries’ to replace 800 seafarers with agency workers paid below the UK’s minimum wage will be blocked by new legislation, the transport secretary has said.
Grant Shapps wrote to the unpopular firm, telling its CEO Peter Hebblethwaite that a “package of measures” to ensure that seafarers are protected from the kind of behaviour displayed by P&O.
The firm's boss admitted to MPs in a committee appearance last week that it knew it was breaking UK employment law by sacking almost 800 staff on March 17, without warning them or their unions.
Transport Secretary Shapps, reacting to the CEO's appearance at the transport committee, said he should resign after his “brazen” and “breathtaking” comments about “knowingly breaking the law”.
While there's so far no sign of the government taking legal action against the firm, as Boris Johnson said it would, there are plans to bring in new legislation which will "ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions in the way that Parliament and this government already intended", Mr Shapps said.
“Through that package, I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage.”
The Cabinet minister repeated his call for Mr Hebblethwaite to resign, describing his position as “untenable”.
The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and above is £8.91 per hour.
Mr Hebblethwaite, whose basic annual salary is £325,000, told MPs on March 24 the average pay of the agency crew is £5.50 per hour.
He said this is "an international seafaring model that is consistent with models throughout the globe and our competitors".
He claimed the workers on below minimum wage would not be subject to UK employment law because they work on vessels registered outside Britain.
On March 23, Prime Minister Johnson told Parliament: "We're going to make sure that everybody working in the UK exclusive economic zone gets paid the living wage and we'll do it as fast as we possibly can."
P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite was grilled on whether he could live on £5.50 an hour
Asked by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to “guarantee that these companies will not get a penny more of taxpayers’ money or a single tax break until they reinstate the workforce”, Mr Johnson replied: “We will take them to court, we will defend the rights of British workers."
In his letter to P&O, Mr Shapps said: "The past week has left the reputation of P&O Ferries and, I'm afraid, you personally in tatters."
He added: "Your appearance at the Transport Select Committee, during which you brazenly admitted to breaking employment law, demonstrated beyond doubt your contempt for workers who have given years of service to your company.
"There is no excuse for this behaviour, and as I said publicly on Friday, I believe your position as chief executive, and indeed as a company director, has become untenable."
Mr Shapps went on: "I will be bringing a comprehensive package of measures to Parliament to ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions in the way that Parliament and this government already intended.
"Through that package, I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage."
He also called on Mr Hebblethwaite to offer "all 800 workers their jobs back on their previous terms, conditions and wages."
Sir Keir urged Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to take tougher action against P&O Ferries and parent company DP World.
"They have already got millions of pounds of Government money, taxpayer money, and they are in for £50 million as one of the free ports," he said.
"A huge amount of taxpayer money. I would like to see the Government take stronger action in relation to that."