Calls have been made for the Scottish government to help avert threatened strike action by Serco over Christmas.
Council convener Malcolm Bell insists it is “essential” ministers step in to solve the dispute over the government contract for the North boats.
It follows a meeting in Edinburgh with Nicola Sturgeon yesterday afternoon after confirmation from the RMT union of strike dates this month.
Mr Bell said: “The Deputy First Minister clearly understood the impact that this action would have on Shetland and agreed to do everything she could to bring about a resolution.
“I am grateful to Ms Sturgeon for taking the time to meet us this afternoon and hear our concerns. I am confident we can work together to help avoid this extremely damaging action.”
Isles MSP Tavish Scott, who also met Ms Sturgeon along with his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur, said families faced having their Christmas and New Year ruined. Stocks to supermarkets could also be affected, he warned.
“This gets more serious by the hour for Shetland. I welcomed the opportunity with the convener to raise Shetland’s needs for an immediate settlement with the Deputy First Minister as we were already meeting to discuss a range of issues. I hope that next week the Scottish government will have stepped in and averted strike action.
“Any strike action that affects the North boats’ lifeline service to Shetland must be avoided, it is that simple. Students travelling home to the Isles will have their Christmas ruined and many families will be affected. This uncertainty is already throwing plans into chaos.
“At this time of year fish and salmon exports are crucially important to the multi-million pound fishing and aquaculture industries.
“Tesco in Lerwick say they could be 40 per cent short of stock based on previous experience of disruption to shipping services. They will not be alone. Shetlanders are having their day-to-day lives disrupted by the behaviour of the Scottish government, the employer and the union.
“This is utterly unacceptable. Why should Islanders be held to ransom over a dispute not of their making? When will the Scottish government step in? Their contract has allowed Serco and the union to damage the Northern Isles. This strike action must be called off immediately and the Scottish government must ensure that happens.”
As things stand Serco’s Shetland to Aberdeen service will stop for 24 hours from 8am on Friday 14th December. The same will happen on the two following Fridays – 21st and 28th December.
The Orkney to Scrabster route will also be affected on the same dates. Meanwhile the Aberdeen-Orkney-Shetland service will also face a full day stoppages on Sundays 16th, 23rd and 30th December.
The action is being taken over plans to cut up to 36 jobs from the North Isles service.
The union insists Serco has “abandoned any pretence” at negotiation as it pushes forward with plans to introduce gourmet menus and premium services. RMT national secretary, Steve Todd, insisted staff were trying to protect services valued by Serco’s customers as well as their own jobs. He said customers would “understand” the reasons behind the industrial action.
“RMT members have shown that they will not stand back while jobs are sacrificed in the middle of this botched privatisation stitch-up. Staff are now stuck in the middle of a row between the Scottish government and Serco as to who is responsible for this shambles.
“Bottom line is staff on Northern Isles routes are threatened in the dash to maximise Serco’s profits and that is totally unacceptable. This dispute can be resolved by Serco simply playing fair by the staff who generate their profits and the ball is now firmly in their court.
“The public will understand that it is our members’ jobs today and will be cuts to services and increases to fares tomorrow. Serco should withdraw this treatment immediately and take up the offer of resuming talks through the proper consultation procedure as a way of resolving this dispute.”
General Secretary Bob Crow said: “Serco are fully aware that we will not accept attacks on our members’ jobs and conditions and what is now an all-out attempt to bulldoze through cuts to core staffing numbers and the casualisation of these skilled shipping grades with ad-hoc agency arrangements and de-facto zero hours contracts.
“This strike action… shows that our members are prepared to fight for their future livelihoods and instead of issuing provocative and misleading press statements Serco should get round the table and resolve this sensibly.”
Serco’s managing director, Stuart Garrett, defended the company’s actions. He said the 36 job cuts the company was seeking had been secured through voluntary redundancies.
“Serco NorthLink Ferries was advised of proposed strike dates by the RMT yesterday after trying to make contact with them several times over the last week. Therefore we are dismayed and surprised at this announcement.
“We notified the staff of our proposals to tailor crew numbers to passenger demand as early as June and began formal consultations in mid-October. As we informed the unions at a meeting on 13th November there would be no requirement for compulsory redundancies. We therefore fail to understand why the RMT is continuing with industrial action.
“Thirty-six employees have applied for voluntary redundancy and are already starting to leave the business. They will receive an enhanced redundancy package which significantly exceeds the statutory requirements.
“We continue to offer very favourable terms and conditions, including commitment to a three year pay deal that commenced last year. This deal saw all seafaring staff receive a 4.25 per cent pay rise this year, nearly double the rate of inflation and they will receive the same next year.
“The Scottish Transport Minister today highlighted in a written parliamentary answer that the staffing changes proposed will actually have a positive impact locally due to the requirement for more seasonal and temporary labour. I am confident that we will actually employ more local people.
“If the RMT insists on proceeding with this industrial action, we will be looking to maintain as many services as possible to minimise disruption to the public, particularly given the difficulties this action could cause to people’s travel plans over the festive period.”