in the back

It's the same old ship-show!
P&O wages, Issue 1624
hebblethwaite.jpg
BANG TO RIGHTS: P&O Ferries boss Peter Hebblethwaite wasn’t entirely accurate in his answers on workers’ rights before the Commons business and trade select committee
P&O FERRIES boss Peter Hebblethwaite, infamous for unlawfully sacking 786 workers a couple of years ago to save his company's owners – the Dubai state – a few quid, was back before the Commons business and trade select committee this month to discuss a subject not exactly dear to his heart: workers' rights and protections.

Committee chair Liam Byrne MP began by asking Hebblethwaite if he was a "modern-day pirate", prompting a bizarre defence of what the latter called a "very difficult decision" in 2022.

In some unexplained way, replacing those workers with cheaper agency staff largely from the Philippines, India and Malaysia had allowed P&O Ferries to reduce its carbon footprint by 135,000 tonnes.

Cook's rations
This has certainly come at a cost for seafarers, however. Byrne had information showing that a cook on one of Hebblethwaite's ships would get $800 for 30 days, working out around £2.90 an hour and well below the £5.15 Hebblethwaite had told his committee in 2022 it would henceforth be paying.

The difference, said the P&O man, was "guaranteed bonus, the guaranteed overtime and the holiday pay" (not things that would normally be thought of as basic pay for hours worked). In any case, even £2.90 was better than the minimum wage agreed for international seafarers that currently works out at around £2.18 an hour.

But this is a dodgy comparison that the International Transport Workers Federation soon pointed out. "Last week P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite misled MPs by attempting to use ITF minimum wages, which were never intended to apply to European ferry routes, to justify the shocking wages P&O pays seafarers," it said.

Breaking point
When it came to conditions, Hebblethwaite was equally unreliable. Challenged by Labour's Ian Lavery MP over crew working "17 weeks at a time without any holidays or break", he claimed that staff on cross-Channel ferries enjoyed seven days a month off and those on North Sea ferries nine days a month.

This was wrong, and Hebblethwaite was forced to write to the committee afterwards accepting that the requirement was 2.5 days (although these days are often worked and rolled into the pay packet). Even Blackbeard probably had a better idea of his crews' working arrangements.

Paying it forward
Things should improve on cross-Channel ferries soon, when regulations proposed in the wake of the 2022 debacle impose at least the national minimum wage on ferries that dock at least 120 times a year in UK ports, such as the cross-Channel ones.

But transport secretary Mark Harper is dragging his heels on these rules and, even when they do come in, compliance by a company that doesn't like playing by the rules remains to be seen. Meanwhile, other routes will remain vulnerable to Hebblethwaite and other pirates paying dismal wages via offshore recruitment agencies and tax haven-flagged ships.

There's plenty of treasure for the boss, though. Committee member Andy McDonald MP teased out of Hebblethwaite that for the year of the mass sackings, he'd trousered a £183,000 bonus on top of his £325,000 salary.

"I reflected on accepting that payment," he mused, "but ultimately I decided to accept it." Must have been another "very difficult decision".

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To read all these stories in full, please buy issue 1624 of Private Eye - you can subscribe here and have the magazine delivered to your home every fortnight.

Next issue on sale: 6th June 2024
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