P&O Ferries boss admits paying workers £4.87 per hour

Peter Hebblethwaite also admitted earning £508,000 last year including bonuses.

Peter Hebblethwaite gave evidence to MPs on Tuesday
Peter Hebblethwaite gave evidence to MPs on Tuesday

The boss of P&O Ferries has admitted to paying the firm’s workers as little as £4.87 per hour, nearly two years on from a scandal which saw it branded “pirates” for laying off hundreds of staff without notice.

Peter Hebblethwaite repeatedly told MPs on the Business and Trade Committee that P&O’s workers were not being exploited, while resisting calls for an independent investigation into the company’s employment practices.

The chief executive, who admitted he could not live on £4.87 per hour, also revealed he earned £508,000 including a bonus of £183,000 last year.

Mr Hebblethwaite said: “We are paying considerably ahead of the international minimum standard. We believe that it is right that as an international business operating in international waters, we should be governed by international law.”

He added: “All we want is a level playing field with our competitors.”

Mr Hebblethwaite’s appearance before MPs came two years after P&O Ferries fired 786 of its staff and replaced them with low-paid workers who are employed by an external crewing agency.

The company fired employees without notice or union consultation, attracting widespread criticism from ministers, unions and the public.

The Insolvency Service later said it would not pursue criminal proceedings against the company, which has been owned by Dubai-based DP World since 2019.

It replaced the sacked workers with overseas agency staff, and told Parliament in 2022 its agency workers’ pay averaged £5.50 per hour.

Since then, an analysis of payslips conducted by the Guardian and ITV News suggested that P&O agency workers had in some cases been earning about £4.87 an hour, which Mr Hebblethwaite confirmed on Tuesday.

Committee chair Liam Byrne asked Mr Hebblethwaite: “Are you basically a modern day pirate?”

Mr Hebblethwaite did not respond directly to the accusation.

P&O laid off nearly 800 workers in 2022 without warning
P&O laid off nearly 800 workers in 2022 without warning (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Byrne later asked: “Do you think you could live on £4.87 an hour?”

Mr Hebblethwaite said: “No, I couldn’t.”

Labour MP Charlotte Nichols repeatedly urged Mr Hebblethwaite to commit to an independent investigation into the company’s employment practices, which he resisted.

He said: “You can take from the retention levels that the crewing agent experiences and their ability to recruit the highest standard of international seafarers is hard evidence that people who could work anywhere in the world on any ships have chosen to work for P&O.”

The UK minimum wage was £10.42 an hour at the time, and rose to £11.44 an hour in April.

But for maritime workers employed by an overseas agency, who work on ships which are foreign-registered in international waters, the rates do not apply.

The Government promised to close the loophole two years ago after the P&O Ferries job cuts.

It said earlier this year that it expects new legislation addressing the issue to become active this summer. France brought in a similar law this year.

Mr Hebblethwaite recently agreed to sign a voluntary Government Seafarers’ Charter which commits it to pay maritime workers at least the UK minimum wage in British waters. He said the company would sign the charter “within months”.

When asked whether the legal changes would result in more lay-offs and large-scale staffing changes, Mr Hebblethwaite could not give a guarantee either way.

Trades Union Congress general secretary Paul Nowak said Hebblethwaite’s response showed “zero remorse” for laying off workers.

He added: “It beggars belief that P&O Ferries has faced no sanctions for its misdeeds and that its parent company DP World has continued to be awarded government contracts.”

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for transport Louise Haigh said: “It’s insulting that P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite expects staff to get by on a measly £4.87 an hour, while admitting he wouldn’t be able to survive on it himself.

“It has now been two years since P&O Ferries illegally sacked 786 workers and replaced them with agency workers paid less than the minimum wage.

“Since then little to nothing has changed – the investigation into the company has gone silent, fire and rehire is still legal, no binding measures are in place to protect seafarers, and ministers have rewarded P&O with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money.”