North Boat workers are to be balloted on strike action amid fears the handover of the service to multinational Serco will lead to poorer pensions and possible job losses.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has been critical of the decision to award Serco the £243 million, six-year contract which begins next month.
Islanders’ fears about a poorer standard of service, particularly for freight such as fish and shellfish and livestock, appear to have been at least partially allayed following a series of meetings held with Serco.
But RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “RMT always said that this deal was about maximising profits at the expense of services, fares and the workforce and our fears are proved well-founded by this pensions scandal.”
Serco, whose takeover of the route was disrupted after rival bidder Streamline went to court to try to block the awarding of the contract, defended its approach.
Jamie Ross, business development director at Serco, said: “We have had a series of recent meetings with staff and unions and the discussions have been constructive.
“Over the coming weeks we will continue working with both the unions and employees to discuss a number of issues.”
A spokeswoman for government agency Transport Scotland said it was legally obliged to tender for public services.
“While the transfer of staff is a matter for the new operator, Serco, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) rules will apply and Serco will be working with NorthLink, the outgoing operator, during the handover period to transfer staff over.”