New North Boats operator Serco has re-affirmed its belief that there is scope to reduce staff and introduce “more flexible” working practices on the service.
Serco’s business development director Jamie Ross said today seasonal variations in demand on ferry routes, particularly on the Pentland Firth, could allow it to scale back the number of people it employs.
Under “TUPE” legislation designed to protect employees, Serco must transfer outgoing operator NorthLink’s staff once it starts running the service. A consultation with NorthLink and employees is continuing ahead of the 5th July handover.
Serco has come under attack from the RMT union, which is particularly concerned over cuts to staff pensions. It has warned it may ballot workers on strike action if talks in the next week or so do not prove fruitful.
Michael Hogg, the RMT’s regional shipping organiser for Scotland and Northern Ireland, said that changes to pension provisions were “the straw that’s broken the camel’s back for us”.
“There’s also talk about potential job losses, tampering with manning levels resulting in a reduced service to the islands, [and] also talk about zero-hour contracts for seasonal workers,” Mr Hogg told The Shetland Times.
“These issues are unacceptable as far as the RMT is concerned, and if nothing gives through meaningful dialogue and discussion, they will ballot.”
But speaking during today’s external transport forum, Mr Ross stressed that Serco recognised it has a “strong duty of care” to staff, who are “doing a very good job and are highly appreciated at the moment”.
Mr Ross said he understood why unions were standing up for their staff, but he remains confident that possible strike action can be averted through dialogue with employees in the days ahead.
As to the possibility of job cuts, he said: “Once we start operating the contract it’s really for the local management to sit down and discuss any future plans, not just with trade unions but with staff representatives as well.”
Meanwhile, politicians and key figures from the fisheries and agriculture industries are lobbying strongly for Serco to base its second freight ship in Lerwick for the six months of the year it is on stand-by.
Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison said any scenario where trailers of fish awaiting export were left on the quayside would be unacceptable. He said industry’s urgent need to ship produce must not be thwarted by “anything short of a hurricane”, meaning the second vessel simply must be available to travel at “very short notice”.
Mr Ross said Serco would ensure the freight vessel was ready as and when required and would be based “somewhere on the network”, but no final decision on precisely where has been taken yet.
“They [council and industry figures] believe the best place for it, from a service recovery and robustness point of view, is in Lerwick, so we’ll take that into account when we’re finalising our plans.”
Taking questions during a well-attended 90 minute session at Islesburgh on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Ross sought to offer reassurances in a range of areas, including timetabling, dry-docking, marketing and fare discounts. He pledged that Serco would build on the many areas where it believes NorthLink had performed well in the past 10 years.
NorthLink’s chief executive Bill Davidson said it had been an honour to serve the people of Shetland for the past decade. He admitted surprise at having lost the £243 million Scottish government contract, but said it was more a case of “au revoir rather than goodbye” and vowed to fight to win back the North Boats operation when the contract comes up for renewal again in 2018.
Mr Ross said Serco – a FTSE100 listed global company with a turnover of £4.6 billion last year – wanted to ensure the service it provided had a strong local imprint.
He rejected any notion of running the service from offices in the south of England. The company will keep the NorthLink brand and livery and wishes to continue using local suppliers “very heavily”, though that did not extend to a commitment to retaining every single company currently providing goods for sale on its ships.
Many of the industry representatives present showered praised on NorthLink for its co-operation since 2002. It was commended for co-operating on allowing NHS patients to travel at short notice, providing assistance to sports teams and individuals travelling to compete on the mainland and offering free trips each year to young people.
Serco hopes to unveil its management team in the next few days. Until that is in place, Mr Ross said he could not give any cast-iron commitments on some of the specifics, but as a general principle he said Serco had no plans to withdraw any NorthLink schemes and offerings which have proved popular.
Though stressing it was still “early days”, ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart gave a cautious welcome to what the multinational services company had to say for itself.
“What I was glad to hear was this commitment to get very close to the community and fully understand what the community needs for a lifeline service, which is what tends to get forgotten, even in government circles.”
Mr Wishart said the new management team would be “pivotal” in Serco’s success, or otherwise, in running the ferry route. While he understood that, as an employer, Serco couldn’t guarantee its staffing level would remain the same for the next six years, it will be important that employees “know they are working for a very caring and responsible company”.
He said: “If they have any reputation for hire and fire, that will simply not go down well and, like any company, they won’t get the loyalty.”
Whether the second freight boat is based in Lerwick or not, Mr Wishart said the critical point was to have the vessel “crewed and fuelled and ready to go” – not only for seafood, but also to keep the oil industry, supermarkets and other shops supplied frequently.