Northern Isles ferry strike 'disappointing', transport minister says

Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown has expressed "disappointment" that Northern Isles ferry staff have decided to strike in the Christmas period.

RMT union members on the Orkney and Shetland routes have voted for action after plans by operator Serco Northlink Ferries to cut jobs.

Mr Brown said the employer had ruled out compulsory job cuts and staff were getting an above-inflation pay rise.

But the union accused Serco of "deskilling" the workforce.

During a statement to the Scottish Parliament by the transport minister, MSPs heard islanders would suffer disruption, despite contingency plans being put in place to cover the action, between 14 and 30 December.

It is the first such action by seafaring ferry workers since 1966.

Mr Brown said Serco, which took over the northern ferry contract from Northlink in July after a tendering exercise, said the company had decided to cut staffing because ferries had been "operating at staffing levels which are higher than is required for a large percentage of the year".

The minister said there would be no compulsory job cuts, while the unions had agreed the terms of voluntary redundancy deals and, under a three-year pay deal, workers would get a 4.25% pay rise this year, nearly double the rate of inflation.

Mr Brown said the interests of workers had to be balanced with delivering a cost-effective service.

He added: "I'm disappointed in the decision to continue with the strike action, not least what I understand has been the movement on the side of the employer in order to try to meet some of the continuing concerns.

"For example, as I understand it, there's a commitment from Serco that the terms and conditions which apply to staff will not be revisited again."

Labour MSP Richard Baker said the minister must do all he can to help resolve the dispute, adding: "We're concerned about the impact of the situation on those who rely on the lifeline routes provided by the Northern Isles ferry service.

"I'm sure those concerns are very much shared by those workers who feel they've been left with little option but to take this action."

The Tories' Mary Scanlon said she understood 36 staff took redundancy under "enhanced terms", asking: "Why are the RMT persisting in punishing families and businesses in Orkney and Shetland at this festive time of year?"

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said many islanders were having to make "costly" changes to their travel plans, while Tavish Scott, who represents Shetland, added that one family in his constituency faced £1,000 in costs.

Mr Scott said of the Serco contract: "At the time it was signed, there must have been some indication that Serco costs were going to reduce and therefore the potential for the islanders being held to ransom in this way was there."

The RMT said it did not agree with the minister's comments, and said the dispute was not about compulsory redundancies, but Serco's plans to "deskill" and "casualise" the industry, removing long-term career prospects on some of the most dangerous shipping lanes in Europe.

The union said its members were "prepared to fight for their future livelihoods".

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