Grant Shapps unveiled today a new set of measures which are expected to make P&O Ferries “fundamentally rethink” the sacking of almost 800 seafarers.
“P&O Ferries’ failure to see reason, to recognise the public anger, and to do the right thing by their staff has left the government with no choice,” he told the House of Commons. “I am today announcing a package of nine measures that will force them to fundamentally rethink their decision.
“This will send a clear message to the maritime industry: we will not allow this to happen again.”
As part of the measures to protect seafarers, the UK Government will create “minimum wage corridors” between the UK and neighbouring nations such as Ireland, France and Denmark, as well as it will ask ports to deny access to those who do not pay minimum wage.
The decision came after P&O’s boss Peter Hebblewaite admitted the company’s decision to sack 800 members of staff without consulting with unions broke the law.
Hebblethwaite also said the workers hired to replace those laid off were paid below UK minimum wage whilst in international waters.
The boss’s admission caused calls demanding his resignation to mount over the past two weeks. Shapps said he had contacted the Insolvency Service’s chief executive, saying Hebblethwaite should resign.
“I’ve written to the chief executive of the Insolvency Service, conveying my firm belief that Peter Hebblethwaite is unfit to lead a British company,” he said. “And I have asked them to consider his disqualification.”
Shapps’s comments come on the same day P&O accused the coastguard of displaying “an unprecedented level of rigour” after it detained two of its ships over safety issues at the behest of the Department for Transport.
“It is clear that – following interventions by ministers and MPs – the MCA inspections have reached an unprecedented level of rigour, and we have been told that our ships will also now be required to pass further inspections by the flag state and classification society respectively,” said a spokesperson for the company.
“We welcome this additional scrutiny and would reiterate that the safety of our passengers and crew is our foremost priority.
“Any suggestion that it is being compromised in any way is categorically false.”
Despite the government’s promises, stakeholders highlighted the legal difficulties the plan has. According to Nautilus’s general secretary Mark Dickinson the proposal “could take many months if not years to deliver” while union TUC’s Frances O’Grady said workers need for the government to “finally deliver the long-promised Employment Bill to boost worker protections.”
British Ports Association’s chief executive Richard Ballantyne also admitted that asking ports to enforce minimum wage rules is “unworkable” as it would place ports “in a difficult legal predicament.”
“The ports industry is genuinely sympathetic towards the situation of the impacted seafarers; however, we would suggest that ports are not the competent authorities to enforce rules on employee salaries or working conditions in the shipping industry,” he said.
“We are concerned that the government is rushing to find a solution without considering the wider implications in the maritime sector.”