Marine pilots and launch crews at Sullom Voe are to be given 90 days to sign up to new council work contracts or face losing their jobs.
Letters are to be sent out to the workforce shortly after New Year as the council gets tough in confronting sea staff at Sella Ness who continue to resist the cost-cutting “Ports for the Future” reforms.
Feelings among the 10 pilots are running high after many months of complex and unfruitful negotiations aimed at agreeing four redundancies and raising the retirement age from 60 to 65.
One pilot said yesterday there was anger and disappointment at the way long-serving employees were being treated but it was too early to talk about possible strike action, which could effectively shut down the oil terminal.
He believed that after spending most of two years on the reforms the council would have some contingency plan in store should the pilots walk off the job or be dismissed. “We hope it won’t come to that,” he said.
He did not wish to speak openly about the dispute until after the 90-days’ notice letters are received.
Another pilot told The Shetland Times about their anger and frustration at the process, which is an extension of the mammoth single status negotiations over pay and conditions that almost all of the rest of the council workforce has already completed. He said “nearly intolerable” pressure had been applied to him and his colleagues to comply for five years now.
It is understood that talks between the council and the pilots’ union Nautilus will continue while the 90 days are ticking with a view to finding a compromise.
Details of the cause of the dispute between the council and the pilot boat crews are not clear, although they include resistance to changes in the shift patterns which will end the practice of them being paid for long shifts which include sleeping time.
The council has also yet to conclude a deal with the crews of the tugs at Sella Ness.
The Shetland Times reported 16 months ago that the SIC was stepping up its efforts to remove pilots from the vessel traffic service (VTS) which monitors and communicates with shipping using Sullom Voe and other council ports. They are being replaced by dedicated VTS operators on salaries of just over half the pilots’ rate of around £64,000. Currently there are five operators, including three trainees who are intended to replace four pilots.
But according to one of the two pilots who spoke to this newspaper the council is taking a “brutal” stance by making it a condition for the men getting their retirement packages that their colleagues first agree their new contracts with the new retirement age of 65.
He said there was a serious health and safety issue of forcing pilots in their 60s to clamber up the sides of tankers “on a dirty night at the Ramna Stacks”. If not there is a possibility of legal action being mounted against the council for forcing the retirement age up. According to one of the pilots the authorities in Rotterdam have a compulsory retirement age of 55 for their harbour pilots.
Ports for the Future has dragged on for most of two years as negotiations took place to shed staff and tailor the operation to suit a port with declining tanker traffic. In Sullom Voe’s heyday there were 24 pilots on big salaries with excellent conditions. That has been whittled down to 10 and will fall to six if the early retirements go through.
The areas that Ports for the Future has been looking at include forming a pool of qualified mariners who can be called upon to crew tugs, pilot boats and possibly ferries instead of continuing with the rigid system of the past under which each service had separate personnel.
But the process of streamlining marine operations at Sella Ness has been ongoing a lot longer than the Ports for the Future redesign, starting about five years ago with the purchase of Shetland Towage from Shetland Charitable Trust in early 2006.
The issuing of 90-day notices was sanctioned by councillors in private at the last meeting of the Full Council earlier this month.
Attempts to secure comment from the council side proved difficult yesterday due to the number of key staff on early festive leave. Infrastructure chairwoman Iris Hawkins, harbour board chairman Alastair Cooper, chief executive Alistair Buchan, infrastructure executive director Gordon Greenhill and harbourmaster Roger Moore were all unavailable.