The storm over ferry workers’ pay onboard the freight vessels is continuing unabated, with the company at the centre of the row dismissing union claims.
Heysham-based Seatruck, which runs the service on behalf of Serco, has denied assertions by the RMT Union that workers were being paid as little as £3.66 an hour.
It comes after Transport Scotland voiced disappointment that Seatruck had refused a backdated offer from Serco to bring up pay-levels.
Seatruck says over 50 per cent of the crew on the Hildasay and Helliar ferries are already paid the equivalent of the national minimum wage or more.
However, that still leaves half of the crew on less than the minimum wage. In defence of that, the company says it operates “international ships” with crew-members paid “multiples of their own indigenous national minimum wage”.
Seatruck says it also offered the sale of the two cargo ships to Transport Scotland – a move which would take wage control out of the company’s hands once and for all.
For its part, Transport Scotland says it has no plans to buy the ships, however, insisting it would not be a “viable option”.
‘Beating the drum’
The issue of pay has caused consternation among union members who held a protest in Aberdeen on Friday morning.
Seatruck spokesman, Tony Redding, said the RMT was “beating the drum”.
“The RMT was suggesting that people were paid as little as £3.66 per hour, which is untrue,” he said.
“Basically, over half of the people on the two ships are paid the equivalent of the national minimum wage, or more.
“And those who are on the lowest pay-rate on board exceeds £4.60 per hour.
“We can understand the sensitivity of it. It’s a lifeline route. It’s absolutely crucial to the Northern Isles.”
Mr Redding said Seatruck was an international company with a fleet-wide pay structure.
“It can’t make an exception for the two ships,” he added.
“These are international ships. They’re not UK ships and they’re not UK nationals onboard the ships. They’re not covered by the UK national wage. The crews onboard our ships are paid multiples of their own indigenous national minimum wage.”
He said Seatruck had offered to sell the ships to Transport Scotland.
“They could solve the pay issue themselves, by paying whatever rate they deemed to be appropriate for the people on the ships – because it would be their ships.”
Mr Redding added the service provided was under a charter agreed in 2012.
“The charter will run through to mid-2018. Basically, every time the RMT beats its drum, this issue comes up.” TONY REDDING
All the parties involved, including Transport Scotland, were aware of “all the fine details” involved in the operation of the ships, he added.
“They shouldn’t be surprised because they were party to it four years ago.
“The charter will run through to mid-2018. Basically, every time the RMT beats its drum, this issue comes up.”
However, the union says the figures it had were the most recent it was able to obtain. It has renewed criticism of the Scottish government contract which allows workers to be paid below minimum wage levels.
Spokesman, Gordon Martin, said the campaign, which saw protesters in Aberdeen stage a demonstration outside two SNP MSPs’ offices on Friday, would continue unless dramatic action was swiftly taken.
“The latest figures we have is £3.66, although we did accept all along it may have gone up,” he said.
“We still believe it will be £4 or thereabouts. If they are saying it’s more than that, that’s a matter for them. But the fact remains we have seafarers working on a Scottish government contract well below the minimum wage – and that is the crux of the matter for us.
“Our campaign will continue until justice is in place for seafarers being exploited on this Scottish government contract. Aberdeen, on Friday, was just a starters.”
He said the union had plans to visit other SNP MSPs’ offices to “embarrass” them in the same way it did to two Scottish parliament members on Friday. RMT members are also planning to stage a demonstration at the First Minister’s official residence later this month.
Managing director of NorthLink Ferries, Stuart Garrett, said in a statement: “We are aware that the RMT held a protest in Aberdeen to highlight the ongoing issue with Seatruck’s rate of pay to their crew members.
“Serco charters two cargo vessels from Seatruck as part of the NorthLink Ferry service in Scotland. Since being advised of this issue we have sought to ensure that all workers on the service receive the UK minimum wage irrespective of the specific legal requirements.
“We have been trying to address the issue with Seatruck since 2014, and have repeatedly made offers to pay them an amount that would fully cover the additional cost of paying the UK minimum wage. Seatruck, part of the Clipper Group, have refused to accept this offer.”
In an unattributed statement, the Scottish government said it was “deeply disappointed” that Seatruck had rejected Serco’s offer to pay their staff the minimum wage.
“Scottish ministers are working with stakeholders on the next Northern Isles ferry service contract. Work is being done to ensure that any future subcontractors pay the minimum wage, regardless of where the company or crew are based. The minister has also written to the UK government to ask them to take action on this.”
The statement added: “Scottish ministers do not believe that purchasing a freight vessel for the next Northern Isles ferry service contract is a viable option, and that tenderers should be required to source appropriate vessels themselves and reflect these in their bid.”
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, meanwhile, demanded government act over the lack of enforcement action against companies which pay their staff less than the minimum wage.
Mr Carmichael told the Commons: “I want to bring to the House’s attention the situation regarding two ferries that run lifeline freight services to my constituency from Aberdeen.
“The Helliar and the Hildasay are operated by Seatruck Ferries, but they are on contract to Serco, which operates the Scottish government-funded lifeline ferry service.
“The RMT tells me that in 2014, when it last had sight of the contracts, some 20 ratings on the two ferries were being paid £3.66 an hour.
“The ferries’ journeys start in Aberdeen and finish in either Orkney or Shetland in the Northern Isles, but the company is able to pay that rate because it is deemed to be operating wholly outside UK waters. It beggars belief.
“It is wrong not only for the ratings, most of whom are probably Estonian nationals, but for UK seafarers whose jobs and livelihoods are being undercut by such employment practices.
“It is outrageous that a taxpayer-funded service is being operated in a way that undermines the opportunities of British seafarers to get working conditions and employment rates to which they would otherwise be entitled.”
Speaking later Mr Carmichael said there was simply no excuse for the situation.
He added: “These are routes, funded by the Scottish government, working exclusively in Scottish waters, and yet, they are not being paid the national minimum wage, let alone the living wage.”
Mr Carmichael also highlighted two other vessels which are being held in UK ports over problems concerning unpaid wages.
“From what I hear the Helliar and the Hildasay are just the tip of the iceberg. We have heard recently about the Malaviya Seven and [the Malaviya] 20, [on] which staff are paid less than the minimum wage.
“These scandalous actions need to be stopped, and I will continue raising it with the government until I see pay improve for those seafarers who deserve to be paid much more.”