One year on, has P&O Ferries got away with illegally sacking all its crew?

On a bright March morning a year ago, it took just a few hours for P&O Ferries to bring the careers of its seafaring crew to a shocking halt. Recalling the fleet to port, it summarily sacked 786 people, many by video message – with foreign agency staff lined up to take their place.

Politicians were united in outrage; the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, said: “P&O plainly aren’t going to get away with it.”

A year on, plainly, P&O has got away with it. The brand may now be synonymous with corporate cynicism, and a civil investigation rumbles on. But no one was prosecuted, meaningful reform is yet to happen, P&O’s cross-Channel ferry business is gearing up for another summer as market leader – and there has been no sanction against either the firm or its owner, DP World.

Nor indeed, against the directors: in a second jaw-dropping act the following week, the company’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, told MPs the company had knowingly acted illegally, and would do so again. While ministers insisted his head must roll, he remains firmly in his £325,000 a year post.

Few seafarers from P&O have been so lucky. Sacked workers have been restrained from speaking out by non-disclosure clauses in redundancy agreements, signed to a short deadline that gave traded enhanced payoffs for their legal rights. Steve – not his real name – was one long-serving seafarer who reluctantly took P&O’s money. “If you didn’t sign, you had a lot to lose,” he says.

No one on the ships saw it coming, he says. “I didn’t think anybody would stoop that low. We’d gone through Covid, all the restrictions, two rounds of redundancy. Then it looked like light at the end of the tunnel with strong bookings – only to find they’d decided to sack everybody.

“I’ve been in dark places, I can’t get my head around it. I’d always been a loyal employee – decades of work, then a short video, you’re sacked. They wanted cheaper labour, no rights, nothing, that’s it.”

P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite answering questions from MPs committee.
P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite answering questions from MPs committee. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

Bill – also a pseudonym – was a former able seaman on the Pride of Kent. He says: “It still rankles, the fact they got away with it. It still hurts.”

Some, including officers and engineers, have returned, now part of the gig economy on short-term contracts. Bill has not worked since, and says of former crewmates he knows: “More or less everybody who was laid off is struggling, picking up jobs piecemeal, reverting to agency work from a steady job. Their whole life has been downgraded.”

The one seafarer who didn’t settle was John Lansdown, a sous-chef on the Pride of Canterbury. He took P&O to a tribunal and eventually won a bigger sum, which he donated to charity.

“I needed the money, but it was a point of principle,” Lansdown says. He wishes more had followed his path: “If several hundred people were willing to hold P&O up in a tribunal for years, they may well have thought again.”

Lansdown first worked for P&O when he was 16 in 1998. He says: “We didn’t just lose our jobs. We spent half our lives on those ships – the people we sailed with, good and bad, would become a second family. It’s everything seafarers hold dear. P&O valued it at zero and broke it all.”

A protest against P&O Ferries’ decision to fire hundreds of employees outside the Hoiuses of Parliament on 21 March 2022.
A protest against P&O Ferries’ decision to fire hundreds of employees outside the Hoiuses of Parliament on 21 March 2022. Photograph: May James/Reuters

The replacement agency crew, drawn from around the world, earn considerably less and work longer stints on board – at least a fortnight of consecutive shifts, rather than the previous seven-day rotations. Some are working up to 17 weeks straight and earn less than £4 an hour, payslips seen by unions show.

There were sound reasons for the weekly handover, says Steve: “When it’s windy, you’re working an 84-hour week and then trying to sleep with your cabin rocking about – you come off and you’re not fit to do anything for days. You’re crossing the busiest shipping lanes in the world, you’ve got to be at a high level of alertness at all times, and ready to react – and that comes through experience.”

A P&O spokesperson said safety is paramount, that the company pays above the International Labour Organization minimum and that all its crew have appropriate qualifications.

Darren Jones, the Labour MP who chaired the extraordinary Commons hearing of the business and transport committees, vividly remembers Hebblethwaite’s “albeit honest, but remarkable answer” to their questions: “He said, I know what the law is. I broke it on purpose. And I would do it again. Which essentially is saying to parliament, what are you going to do about it?

“But ministers haven’t done anything. Those 800 workers have not had any form of justice. He’s gotten away with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a bonus. The whole thing basically stinks.”

The government points to a nine-point plan announced in the aftermath, including the seafarers’ wages bill, now progressing through parliament.

A government spokesperson said: “We reacted swiftly and decisively against P&O Ferries’ appalling treatment of its staff.

“Having brought forward legislation to ensure seafarers are paid at least an equivalent to the UK national minimum wage, and establishing a new statutory code to deter ‘fire and rehire’, we are now working with our near European neighbours to further protect their welfare and pay.”

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P&O ferries Pride of Kent (front), Spirit of Britain (left), and Pride of Canterbury (back right) docked at the Port of Dover in Kent.
P&O ferries Pride of Kent (front), Spirit of Britain (left), and Pride of Canterbury (back right) docked at the Port of Dover in Kent. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Unions are not impressed. Martyn Gray, of Nautilus, says: “The bill addresses something that wasn’t really the problem, minimum wage legislation.

“What P&O did was exploit various loopholes in trade union law. The government made some very strong statements about holding them to account and making sure it never happens again. But it could happen.”

A TUC report published on Friday concurs that rogue employers now have a “free pass to act with impunity”. Tim Sharp, who leads on employment rights at the TUC says that despite the talk, ministers have “totally failed” to ensure better workplace protections: “There is nothing stopping another P&O scandal from happening again.”

The new code of practice aims to deter ‘fire and rehire’ by entitling mistreated workers to 25% more compensation; arguably, the kind of calculation P&O itself made and decided was worth it.

An “unlimited fine” was initially threatened but the Insolvency Service concluded that P&O could not face a criminal prosecution – although its ongoing civil investigating could conceivably still bar Hebblethwaite and others as company directors.

Much of P&O is incorporated legally offshore: employment contracts issued from Jersey, ships flagged in Bermuda, Cyprus and the Bahamas. Britain’s wage laws would only apply when the ferries enter its waters. There is hope that bilateral agreements with France – which has already done more to address the issue, Gray says – could lead to progress for cross-Channel workers.

P&O Ferries says it had been losing £100m a year after itself being undercut on the Channel by another employer, Irish Ferries, and claims the sackings “improved our service and boosted our competitiveness”.

Maintenance work on the Pride of Kent P&O ferry at the Port of Dover.
Maintenance work on the Pride of Kent P&O ferry at the Port of Dover. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Its owner, Dubai-based DP World, this week announced record profits of $1.8bn (£1.5bn), and continues to be a major player in Rishi Sunak’s planned freeports. P&O would not confirm if Hebblethwaite had a bonus.

Hebblethwaite declined to be interviewed, but a spokesperson said: “Significant changes in the last year have saved this business, including the 2,200 jobs we secured in coastal communities across the UK. We are now serving the needs of our passenger and freight customers much better than ever before.

“Through our new flexible operating model, we have optimised sailings to meet customer demand, something we could not have done before.”

Darren Procter, the national secretary of the RMT who led protests in Dover on the day of the sackings, says: “As an island nation, we should be employing seafarers on the same kind of conditions as individuals on land. The exploitation is hidden away.”

A year on, without meaningful action against P&O, he says: “Now, every seafarer is under threat.”

The Guardian