Boss of P&O Ferries admits paying crew as little as £4.87 per hour

The chief executive of P&O Ferries told MPs he £508,000 last year, including a bonus of £183,000, ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills reports

“Are you basically a modern day pirate?”

The opening question was combative and one the chief executive of P&O Ferries decided was probably best to side-step.

Peter Hebblethwaite told MPs on the Business and Trade Committee that the decision to fire 786 staff in March 2022 and replace them with low paid agency crew was “difficult” and “one which I wish we’d never had to make in the first place”.

But he insisted it was a decision that had saved the company from bankruptcy.

At the time of the mass sackings two years ago, Mr Hebblethwaite told parliamentarians that the lowest paid agency worker was earning at least £5.15 an hour.

On Tuesday, he admitted the some crew are currently being paid as little as £4.87 an hour, including holiday pay, overtime and bonuses.

Two months ago, when ITV News and the Guardian reported that that we had seen payslips and contracts which showed that some crew were earning precisely this figure, P&O denied it.

A spokesperson for the company told us “we do not recognise the pay rates that you are referencing. No member of our crew on our Dover-Calais vessels earns less than $5200 per month, equivalent to £5.20 per hour”.

Our report in March, also highlighted the long hours that some of P&O’s crew - many of whom are recruited from India, Malaysia and The Philippines - have been working.

We spoke to more than a dozen seafarers on P&Os ships. They told us they worked 84 hour weeks for up to four months, without time ashore.

Mr Hebblethwaite appeared to dispute this and told MPs that P&O contracted crew via an agency on the basis they would receive seven days off a month.

Peter Hebblethwaite, chief executive of P&O Ferries was questioned over the findings of a joint investigation by ITV News and the Guardian

The chairman of the committee, Liam Byrne, said: “Both ITV and the Guardian found people working 12 shifts, 7 days a week, for up to 17 weeks at a time without a day off and without permission to leave the ship. You’ve just told the committee that people have seven days off a month”

Mr Hebblethwaite replied: “The Maritime Labour Convention requires seafarers to have a minimum of 2 and a half days off per month. On Dover-Calais, we contract for seven days off.”.

“So the conclusions of this investigation, from ITV and the Guardian, are wrong?” Byrne asked.

Mr Hebblethwaite paused and Mr Byrne pressed “is that a yes?”

“I can only tell you what we do," Mr Hebblethwaite responded.

Following the hearing, a number of P&O seafarers have contacted ITV News and the Guardian to confirm that agency crew do not receive days off.

One told us they have “never had seven days off per month across the Channel, you can trust us.”

Andy McDonald MP questioned Mr Hebblethwaite over his salary

ITV News and the Guardian put these comments to P&O and asked if the company had mislead parliament.

P&O did not respond but Mr Hebblethwaite did tell the committee that “the terms under which the crew is employed is set by the crewing agent”.

During the hearing, Mr Byrne suggested that P&O appeared to be “robbing staff blind” but Mr Hebblethwaite insisted crews were not being exploited.

“These are international seafarers, in an international business, in international water. We pay considerably ahead of the international minimum standard,” Mr Hebblethwaite said.

He added: “Our crewing agent has no problem with recruitment, no problem with retention."

The legal loopholes P&O has been exploiting and Mr Hebblethwaite confirmed that P&O Ferries would pay the French minimum wage (£9.95 an hour) from June, following a change in the law in France.

He added that P&O would pay the British minimum wage of £11.44 an hour “in British waters” when the law changes on this side of the Channel.

Asked whether P&O would let go of the agency workers when it increased rates of pay, Mr Hebblethwaite said he would “try to hold on to as many of them as possible”.

P&O cut the wage bill in an effort to save the company but hasn’t reduced his own salary.

He admitted he could not live of £4.87 an hour and revealed he earned £508,000 last year, including a bonus of £183,000.

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