Fears are mounting that Shetland’s freight service to the mainland may be cut to one ship by the preferred bidder for the lifeline ferry, Serco.
Isles MSP Tavish Scott has voiced his concern that one of NorthLink’s two freight ships, the Hildasay and Heliar, which are leased from Seatruck Ferries, may be dispensed with after the proposed July takeover.
Mr Scott’s comments came after he and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur met Serco representatives today.
He will now contact transport minister Keith Brown to stress the importance of the vessels for the islands’ economies.
“We want to make sure that the freight service, that’s very important for the exports of fish, of salmon, of mussels and livestock is maintained and, indeed, enhanced for the future.
“I am concerned we may see the loss of a freight ship – that’s being openly discussed.
“Shetland businesses and the local NFU have been in touch since Friday expressing alarm over any cut to the number of ships and the timetable for the service.
“We have today written to the transport minister looking for assurances that’s not going to happen, and that indeed the service we very much depend on for the economy of our island is going to be enhanced and, in no way, cut back.”
Meanwhile representatives from the maritime union Nautilus International are going round NorthLink’s ships seeking feedback on Friday’s announcement.
A spokesman said there was general concern among staff about Serco, despite transfer arrangements for workers under TUPE regulations.
“There’s nothing to say these are the terms and conditions that will last forever,” he said. “The shipping industry is so competitive, with a very internationalised workforce.
“We want to sit down with them and seek assurances, and make sure there is a shared agenda. This whole tendering process is so deeply divisive, it creates uncertainty for passengers and crews and in the long term it’s really, really bad for services. he whole business of putting it out to tender is destabilising.”
He added Serco’s selection had “raised eyebrows” among union members, given its limited involvement in ferries. The company currently has only one short service, the Woolwich Free Ferry, although it does have knowledge of marine operations through its involvement with the Royal Navy.
He also commented on the announcement being made on Friday – the same day the Scottish council election results were released. “The timing did seem odd.”
Although Serco has been named as the preferred bidder, the new contract is not due to be signed until next week.
That means unsuccessful bidders are still free to challenge the decision.
The standstill period prevents Serco from going into specific detail about what the new contract may contain.