P&O Ferries' 'modern-day slavery' will strike a chord with many overworked and underpaid staff – Laura Waddell

The creative industries are especially bad for exploiting people’s talent and skills which is why almost everyone I know is chronically exhausted, writes Laura Waddell

P&O Ferries boss Peter Hebblethwaite this week told MPs during a worker’s rights hearing at Westminster that he doubted he himself could live on the £4.87 an hour made by the company’s lowest paid agency staff. Who could?

It would certainly be pocket change to a man on his considerable salary. In 2023, one year after government contractor P&O sacked 786 UK-based workers at short notice to replace them with outsourced international agency labour on a cheaper rate, Hebblethwaite made the comparatively staggering sum of more than half a million pounds from his own salary of £325,000 with an additional bonus from of £183,000 on top, putting him firmly in the UK’s top bracket of earners.

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P&O have faced much deserved criticism over their treatment of British seafarers, and these latest declarations from P&O top brass have brought the spotlight swinging back to how workers in one of the oldest trades are being treated. It is a bleak picture.

Protestors demonstrate against P&O Ferries after making hundreds of staff redundant without union consultation in 2022 (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)Protestors demonstrate against P&O Ferries after making hundreds of staff redundant without union consultation in 2022 (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Protestors demonstrate against P&O Ferries after making hundreds of staff redundant without union consultation in 2022 (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Less than half minimum wage

There are two immediately glaring points from Hebblethwaite’s testimony that point to how perverse the situation is here, beyond the fact he’s still in the job two years after admitting the company had broken the law because the decision was made without union consultation. Firstly, that the maritime company is paying such a pitifully low hourly rate to its crew at all, at an average of £4.87 inclusive of overtime and bonuses.

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The average P&O worker, it was revealed, makes barely more at £5.20. At under a fiver, the hourly rate made by P&O’s poorest paid workers is less than half the UK minimum wage, which rose last month to £11.44 – still short of the £12 (or £13.50 in London) calculated by the Living Wage Foundation as the minimum needed to meet living expenses with a reasonable quality of life. Something you’d expect those sailing your ship to have.

Hebblethwaite said the company wouldn’t necessarily take the same decision to sack so many staff again. No wonder, after such a scathing public reception to the move. One senses this about-turn sentiment might be motivated more by political reception and public image than a sudden sense of morality about cutting off swathes of skilled British workers.

The mass sacking two years ago has seen calls to close the ‘loophole’ that made it possible for the company to suddenly jettison hundreds of its employees, and change could come into effect later this year if legislation forces ferry operators to pay workers the UK minimum wage. But Hebblethwaite defended the company’s low wages at Monday’s testimony. According to him, ”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”.

Trickle-down economics

P&O have previously defended their decision to outsource staff as financially prudent, framing it as a matter of necessity for the company’s continued survival. In fact Hebblethwaite himself initially, when questioned by MPs in 2022, said: “I would make this decision again, I’m afraid.” But while P&O have cash to splash on bonuses for those at the upper echelons of company hierarchy, they seem committed to paying a pitiful bare minimum to essential ground staff.

As Labour’s Andy McDonald put it: “It just appears to this committee that you’re getting away with what amounts to modern day slavery.” Something that only seemed to penetrate when Hebblethwaite was urged to consider how he’d fare living on those figures himself.

The other thing to note here is the gaping chasm between P&O’s pay scale at top and bottom. Against the scene of skilled and dedicated mariners having their livelihoods stripped away, this is particularly galling. Let’s get this clear: I’m under no impression this scenario is any different from the many, many private companies that regularly reward their top execs with bonuses in the hundreds of thousands while paying the bare minimum to lower rung staff in the interests of maximising profit.

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Whenever high salaries and bonuses are criticised in instances like this, the trickle-down defence is that top jobs warrant top salaries to attract top talent in a competitive international market. That’s the theory, anyway. We’re used to this state of affairs. But so rarely are vertiginous pay differentials truly pegged accurately to talent or hard work that, for a burnt-out nation struggling to meet the cost of living, it’s increasingly difficult to go along with the widespread pretence that the scale is fair.

Overworked and underpaid

It’s a long time since P&O made traders rich by shipping their opium across the oceans, but the persistent wealth gap in Britain hasn’t changed anywhere near as much as it ought since the Victorian era. It has been estimated by the Equality Trust that by 2035, the private wealth of the UK’s richest 200 families will be larger than the whole UK GDP.

There is little impetus for political parties to push for more lateral company pay structures most straightforwardly because it would be seen as interfering with business. But something of this story, where P&O workers who demonstrated dedication to their trade were treated as disposable, will certainly resonate with many, many others in completely different industries across the UK who themselves feel overworked and underpaid while top-job squatters get the lion’s share of cumulative effort.

The creative industries are especially bad for exploiting underling talent and skills; that’s essentially why almost everyone I know is chronically exhausted. The grassroots growth of cooperative, profit-sharing models is increasingly attractive, not only from a sense of general equality but, having some parity in the process, employees are less likely to be taken for an absolute ride by some cannibalistic conglomerate entity whose only mission is to skim off all the profit they can, hollowing out the people, and decimating a historic skillset, in the process.

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