New north boats operator Serco took command of NorthLink’s fleet of vessels at 3pm today and immediately faced union calls for an urgent, high-level meeting to resolve differences over changes to the terms and conditions of staff, the introduction of zero-hours contracts and the prospect of job cuts.
From a management point of view the handover was straightforward, with Serco NorthLink Ferries managing director Stuart Garrett, newly arrived from the Isle of Man where he ran the Steam Packet Company, proclaiming himself delighted with the professionalism of NorthLink’s team led by Bill Davidson.
Mr Garrett said passengers travelling on the first sailings on Thursday night should notice little difference given all the had work that had been put in by a “transition team” that has been working behind the scenes to ensure the service remains “fit for purpose”.
However the Rail, Maritime and Transport union’s regional organiser for Scotland Mike Hogg described the situation as an “absolute shambles”.
Serco had climbed down over proposed changes to workers’ pensions and agreed that staff would only have to work on Northern Isles routes, rather than being shunted around the country. But the union was still unhappy with proposals to change terms and conditions, introduce zero-hours contracts and the likelihood of future job cuts.
The union has been asking for a meeting at national level with Serco, after which it will take a decision on whether to ballot members on strike action.
“All those issues remain outstanding,” Mr Hogg said. “We’ve been pressing Serco for some considerable time to agree a date for that meeting to take place. The quicker that commences at national level, the better for clarity.”
Mr Garrett, who was in Aberdeen to meet staff and passengers as he took up his new post, said he wished to re-assure people that for the remainder of this year, timetables and ticket prices would stay the same.
Improvements to the service will be announced over the coming months, he said. By the start of next year passengers can expect additional seating and new fully reclining seats, a refreshed catering service – including a new café bar and restaurant – and the introduction of onboard entertainment as well as enhanced WiFi access so that passengers can browse the internet or work while they travel.
Further changes will include a new online booking facility that is easier to use and regular travellers are also set to benefit from the trial of a loyalty scheme, rewarding passengers with discounts when they make multiple bookings.
Mr Garrett, whose wife Wendy’s mother’s family came from Bressay, will be based in Aberdeen and lead a management team which will be located across the Serco NorthLink Ferries network.
He said: “Serco will offer a local service led by a locally based management team. The team and I will be getting out and about to meet with and hear the views of the local community.
“The safety, quality and reliability of the service is my main motivation. Serco understands the importance of this service, but we’re also ready to grow this service – both in terms of passenger numbers and freight – and ultimately we plan to deliver this for the benefit of the Islanders, local businesses, tourism and the government.
“I’d also like to stress that whilst we plan to make changes to our freight service according to seasonality, our restructured operations will respond to varied demand throughout the year and the team and I will continue to engage with freight customers to work with them to meet demand.”
Mr Davidson said NorthLink would be bidding again for the next contract which will begin in 2018.