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P&O Ferries boss took six-figure bonus after sacking of UK-based crew

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The chief executive of P&O Ferries accepted a six-figure bonus in 2023 just over a year after it sacked hundreds of UK-based crew and replaced them with foreign agency workers paid from just £4.87 an hour, MPs heard on Tuesday.

UK ministers committed to “taking action against company leaders who break the law” after the shipping company laid off 800 sailors in 2022 without giving any notice or conducting the usual consultation.

P&O’s treatment of those employees led to lasting reputational fallout — including, most recently, the collapse of a sponsorship deal with Hull KR after the rugby league club said it had “underestimated the continued depth of feeling that remains in some parts of our community”.

But boss Peter Hebblethwaite told the House of Commons business and trade committee on Tuesday that while he regretted the decision, it had been legal. One of two investigations initiated by the government had concluded with no further action, he noted, adding he was “confident” of the outcome of the second.

Hebblethwaite said he had “reflected” before accepting a bonus of £183,000 in April 2023, on top of his £325,000 annual salary, but that “ultimately I did decide to accept it”.

He also confirmed that the seafarers who now crew P&O’s cross-channel and North Sea routes — many flown in from the Philippines or Indonesia — receive a basic wage of about £2.90 an hour.

Total hourly pay started from £4.87 after including guaranteed overtime, bonuses and holiday pay, Hebblethwaite said. He added that although it was “considerably ahead” of international minimum standards, he could not himself live on that amount.

His evidence drew an angry reaction from unions. Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said Hebblethwaite “should be in the dock for what his company is responsible for” rather than “retaining bumper bonuses”.

Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body for the UK labour movement, said: “It beggars belief that P&O Ferries has faced no sanctions for its misdeeds.”

P&O maintains it pays above the minimum required by international maritime standards, and that “as an international business operating in international waters we should be governed by international law”.

But the company, owned by Dubai-based DP World, may soon need to rethink its crewing model after the introduction of French legislation that will require ferry operators to pay the national minimum wage and keep crew onboard for no more than 14 days.

UK legislation mandating the national minimum wage for all crew operating in UK waters is also expected to take effect later this year.

Hebblethwaite told MPs the company would “absolutely” comply with any new legislation and that this would be affordable, because it would create a level playing field for the sector. He previously described the 2022 change as essential to P&O’s survival.

But he also acknowledged that current crew members could be affected by the new rest requirements, which would make it expensive to fly people in over long distances for a short period.

P&O’s crewing agency, PhilCrew, was “working with them to see how we can make it possible for as many of them to stay as possible”, he said, with “no guarantees” as to what would happen to them.

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