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P&O Ferries boss could not live on seafarer wages

UK Parliament P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite
Seafarer pay and conditions are in the spotlight in the UK after a Parliamentary Committee grilled P&O Ferries CEO, Peter Hebblethewaite.

The ferry company boss said he was paid over £508,000 last year, made up of a £325,000 salary and £183,400 bonus, and that he could not survive on the wages paid to P&O Ferries’ seafarers - £4.87 per hour for its lowest paid crew.

His latest appearance in UK parliament was in front of the Business and Trade Committee, which interrogated the pay and conditions of workers on P&O Ferries vessels. The committee focused on the disparity between the wages paid to P&O Ferries seafarers, around £5.20 per hour consolidated pay, and the UK national minimum wage of £11.44 per hour.

“You seem to be robbing your staff blind,” said committee chair Liam Byrne.

P&O Ferries’s defence was that it employs international seafarers on international routes, and so abides by international regulations on minimum pay and the rules of MLC. “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,” said Hebblethewaite.

P&O Ferries will soon have to pay its crews on the Dover-Calais route a higher wage under new law as being brought in by France, raising the minimum wage to £9.95 per hour.

Hebblethwaite leaned repeatedly on the international nature of the crews to justify their pay and conditions. P&O Ferries’ third party crewing agent contracted its seafarers on better terms than the minimum requirement of 2.5 days off per month, giving seven days off per month on the English Channel and nine days per month on the North Sea, he claimed.  

He also repeatedly asserted crews were not P&O Ferries employees but agency staff, despite referring to the same seafarers as “our crews” on a few occasions. Hebblethwaite invited members of the committee to visit P&O Ferries vessels to see working conditions for themselves.

P&O Ferries and its boss Hebblethewaite shot to infamy in 2022 when the firm fired 786 staff without notice and without informing their unions, replacing crews with cheaper workers via a third party crewing agent. The CEO today claimed that the staff were not fired but made redundant, and rolled back on his previous admission that the company had broken UK law by not consulting unions over the redundancies.

Hebblethwaite said P&O Ferries was committed to signing the UK Seafarers Charter – a voluntary scheme to raise seafarer pay and conditions – and that he expects the process to be completed within months, falling short of committing to a timeline. 

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: "Peter Hebblethwaite should be in the dock for what his company is responsible for. Yet he is allowed to pontificate in Parliament, failing several times to be accurate and retaining bumper bonuses throughout his tenure as the head of P&O Ferries.”

The reputation of P&O Ferries has been damaged to the extent that rugby league team Hull Kingston Rovers pulled out of a sponsorship deal with the company. “Two years after the P&O Ferries business restructure, we had underestimated the continuing depth of feeling that remains in some parts of our community… Therefore, Hull KR having decided at this time it is inappropriate to continue with this partnership,” the team said.