Boss of P&O Ferries summoned by MPs to give evidence about work practices

French minister says P&O crews work ‘dangerous’ hours and is 'really shocked' by ITV News and the Guardian that the firm has paid some of its crew less than £5 an hour

The chief executive of P&O Ferries has been summoned by MPs to answer questions about the way the company treats its crew.

Peter Hebblethwaite will appear before the Business and Trade Committee on Tuesday May 7.

Two years ago, Mr Hebblethwaite oversaw the decision to sack 800 of P&O’s seafarers and replace them with agency crew, in an attempt to cut costs.

Last week, an investigation by ITV News and the Guardian revealed that P&O is still paying some of those crew less than £5 an hour.

We saw contracts and payslips which show that P&O expects some crew to work up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to 17 weeks at a time, without a day off.

The French maritime minister, Herve Berville, described such long hours as “dangerous” and “immoral”.

Peter Hebblethwaite oversaw the sacking of 800 ferry workers that were then replaced with cheaper agency staff. Credit: PA

Peter Hebblethwaite’s last appeared before the parliamentary select committee in March 2022.

At the time, he admitted P&O had broken employment law by failing to consult the unions before sacking its staff but he insisted the company had no choice as it needed to save money to avoid bankruptcy.

On May 7, Mr Hebblethwaite will appear on a panel, alongside executives from other companies that have been named and shamed for paying less than the national minimum wage.

Until now, P&O has been exploiting a gap in the legal protection for seafarers.

Maritime workers who work on foreign-registered ships in international waters and are employed by an overseas agency are not required to be paid the UK or the French minimum wage.

Last week, the French government changed the law to compel all cross-channel ferry operators to pay at least the French minimum wage of £9.96 an hour.

The legislation also limits the number of consecutive days crew can work to 14, followed by an equivalent number of days off.

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P&O and other ferry operators have until the end of June to comply or face sanction.

In Britain, the government will implement the Seafarers’ Wages Act later in the summer.

The legislation requires ferry operators in the Channel to pay the UK minimum wage, which rises to £11.40 an hour next month.

P&O Ferries hasn’t yet said whether it intends to challenge the new laws in France and the UK.

Brittany Ferries' CEO Christophe Mathieu signing the charter to protect seafarers' rights in 2023. Credit: Brittany Ferries

Last week, the company announced it would sign The Seafarer’s Charter - a voluntary agreement which protects the rights of seafarers in the English Channel and includes a commitment to pay the minimum wage.

The charter was introduced in July 2023. P&O has, until now, refused to sign it.

The company wouldn’t say why it had changed its mind.

P&O also declined to answer questions about when it intends to sign the charter; how soon it plans to pay the minimum wage; and whether it will continue to ask crew to work for up to four months without a day off.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said “P&O Ferries always pays at least the minimum wage required by national and international law.”

P&O insists that its crew are properly rested.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “It is encouraging to see that nearly all major international ferry companies from the UK have committed to or are in the process of adopting our Seafarers Charter”.

They added: “The Charter will guarantee better working conditions for thousands by ensuring they are paid fairly and have suitable rest”.

The DfT explained that companies are given up to 12 months to demonstrate they comply with the standards set out in the charter.

The Shadow Transport Secretary is skeptical. Louise Haigh told ITV News: “P&O ferries hasn't signed it as of yet. They've only indicated that they will. And we know that the Seafarers Charter is voluntary.

"It's not binding. It requires operators to abide by very limited conditions on the national minimum wage and by roster conditions.”She added: “so it gives me no confidence that this will change anything for P&O seafarers.”

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