Peter Hebblethwaite, “the most hated man in Britain“, just learned a hard lesson that sometimes you get what you pay for.
The CEO of P&O Ferries earned his dubious distinction last month after unceremoniously sacking his entire crew of 800 shipworkers via a Zoom call just minutes before their cheaper agency replacements were brought aboard by security guards donning balaclavas.
On average, the new agency workers he hired earn below minimum wage, and a number from India and the Philippines work for as little as $2.38 an hour, according to British trade union RMT.
On Tuesday, Hebblethwaite found out hiring on the cheap can come with consequences after he terminated seven workers that were caught returning from shore after having consumed alchohol, a potentially dangerous combination when manning a ship.
“The safety of our passengers and crew is our foremost priority and we continue to operate a zero tolerance policy towards drinking whilst on duty,” the company said in a statement.
At the time of Hebblethwaite’s mass layoffs, the UK government had been urged to nationalize the company.
P&O Ferries is a subsidiary of Dubai port operator DP World, which received $320 million in UK state aid to fund work in Africa and stands to receive another $400 million on top — the government’s single biggest international development project on record.
“The UK government is condemning the actions of DP World whilst its development investment arm is using hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to support a joint venture with them,” said British MP Sarah Champion and chair of the parliamentary committee on international development late last month.
“It pains me to think of what $720 million could achieve for global health, women’s education or tackling extreme poverty.”
Along with other routes serviced, P&O Ferries is the leading operator on the Dover-Calais crossing—the main sea link from Britain and Europe.
According to owner DP World, it has a fleet totalling 21 vessels across 11 ports, with a number reportedly registered in Cyprus prior to Brexit.
The one-two punch from the pandemic-related decline in travel followed by a year later by a plunge in trade with the EU as customs checks took effect for Brexit Britain proved too much for the company.
It said it suffered a £100 million pound loss ($131 million) in 2021 and would only remain viable by halving its crew costs.
Speaking to the lower house’s Business Select Committee last month, Hebblethwaite went so far as to admit he intentionally broke the law by ignoring the usual mandatory union consultation and boasted he would do it again if he had the chance.
The controversy is reminiscent of a similar move at Better.com by CEO Vishal Garg, criticized widely at the time for being needlessly callous.
The latest incident with P&O Ferries this week proved to be “absolutely scandalous”, according to the RMT National Secretary Darren Procter.
“They could end this today by saying to the RMT and to Nautilus (trade unions): ‘We’ve made a mistake, we’ve compromised safety, we’ve jeopardised our reputation in the local community, and we want to come back to you’,” the labor leader said.
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