Ferries: sold down the river?

Concerns: CalMac’s tender was returned unopened by Transport Scotland, an arm of the Scottish Government

Concerns: CalMac’s tender was returned unopened by Transport Scotland, an arm of the Scottish Government

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser Back in May 2012, the Northern Isles ferry service was privatised by the Scottish Government, who handed the £350million contract to private company Serco, in preference to the bid by public sector CalMac. Now, the Shetland Times has revealed that CalMac’s tender, which was believed to be cheaper than Serco’s, was returned unopened by Transport Scotland, an arm of the Scottish Government! The SNP government boosted the public subsidy to Serco by about £40million, a 20 per cent increase. The Serco contract led to redundancies, and a threat to workers’ pensions, which was only withdrawn after RMT members voted overwhelmingly to strike.

Now the £1billion contract for Clyde and Hebrides lifeline ferries, which serve remote communities, has been put out to tender by the same government—seeking a contract for eight years from October 2016.

The RMT and the other ferry unions are deeply concerned, and suspicious that this amounts to plans to privatise that ferry service too—but with the announcement delayed until after the May 2016 Scottish elections! And workers’ conditions are again threatened, which has provoked a strike ballot by the RMT, representing about 680 of the 1,400-strong workforce.

I spoke to an RMT member with the Clyde and Hebrides ferries about the issues at stake:

“Since last December we’ve had meetings of the STUC and the four trade unions involved—RMT, Unite, Nautilus and TSSA—with the government and sought guarantees on job security, conditions of service and pensions off the companies tendering for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service.

“We thought we’d reached an agreement we could live with, but then we were told the Scottish Government would only underwrite our pensions if the Pension scheme was reformed by the end 2015.

“We had written to CalMac earlier, insisting on written guarantees on job security through no compulsory redundancies, defence of conditions and no change to the pensions without union agreement.

“They gave no guarantees, and on the back of that we met with Keith Brown and Derek Mackay from the Scottish Government—we are meeting them again this week.

“We will be telling them the demands on us are totally unacceptable. One big issue is pensions. They’ve given us only six months to reform the pension scheme.

“And the reforms they are demanding are that our contributions increase from 6 per cent to 9.5 per cent; that the pension is tied to the state retirement age, meaning we could be working until we’re 68; and that it is downgraded from a Final Salary to a Career Average scheme. So we’re being asked to pay more, work longer, and get less when we retire!

“Against our better judgement, the CalMac ferries were put out to tender. The government hoped for at least five companies bidding for the tender, but nobody is interested because there’s a claw-back of some of the profits to the government. So the only two companies tendering are CalMac and Serco.

“We don’t think Serco are fit to bid for a public service contract, given their financial state and their track record with the Northern Isles ferries and Caledonia sleepers.

“It looks to us as if CalMac is being set up for privatisation. Because both CalMac and the unions had a gun put to their heads, giving us just six months to reform the pension scheme, so that when that doesn’t happen they can claim CalMac is not fit to run the service.

“And CalMac at the moment seems to be run by consultants on £1,400 to £1,500 a day—overruling directors on over £100,000 a year! Something’s not right. This doesn’t add up to the alleged Memorandum of Understanding between the Scottish Government and the STUC!”

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