LONDON (AP) — Britain’s transport secretary on Friday vowed to force a ferry operator to reverse the illegal firing of almost 800 workers, saying the company’s “brazen and breathtaking” decision to intentionally break the law wouldn’t be allowed to stand.
Grant Shapps said he would introduce a package of legislation next week that would force companies like P&O Ferries to pay the U.K. minimum wage at sea, as well as on land. P&O fired 786 seafarers last week and replaced them with crews supplied by a third party in an effort to exploit legal loopholes and slash staff costs.
The legislation “will both close every possible loophole that exists and force them to U-turn on this,” Shapps told Sky News. “We are not having people working from British ports, plying regular routes between here and France, or here and Holland, or anywhere else and failing to pay the minimum wage. It’s simply unacceptable.”
Shapps' comments came a day after P&O Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite told a parliamentary committee that the company had knowingly violated the law and its labor contracts by failing to consult with workers about the firings. P&O knew unions would never accept the company’s plans so it decided to avoid a “sham” consultation process and compensate workers for the lack of advance warning, he said.
Labor unions representing the fired crew members say they have been replaced by workers earning as little as $2.38 an hour, or the equivalent of 1.81 pounds. The U.K. minimum wage is 8.91 pounds an hour.
The company, a subsidiary of Dubai government-owned DP World, says the changes were needed to save the business and protect 2,200 other jobs after hundreds of millions of pounds in losses over the past two years.
But the moved sparked outrage from politicians and unions after P&O received millions of pounds of British government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.
P&O earlier this week told Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that it had not violated British laws requiring advance notice to the government because the fired crews worked on ships registered in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cyprus. They were employed by three P&O units incorporated in Jersey, a self-governing crown dependency that isn’t part of the U.K.
The company said authorities in the appropriated jurisdictions were notified in advance.
Shapps on Friday called for Hebblethwaite to step down.
“I thought what the boss of P&O said yesterday about knowingly breaking the law was brazen and breathtaking and showed incredible arrogance, and I cannot believe that he can stay in that role,” Shapps said.