Scottish ferry workers strike in privatisation row

RMT members at CalMac walk out over prospect of Serco winning contract to operate services across Clyde, inner Hebrides and Western Isles.

Severin Carrell Scotland correspondent

Islanders and visitors across the Hebridean islands and west of Scotland face widespread disruption when industrial action by ferry workers escalates into an all-out strike on Friday.

Nearly two-thirds of lifeline ferry services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) across the Clyde, inner Hebrides and Western Isles will not sail as members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union stage the stoppage in protest against possible privatisation.

Supplemented by air services, the CalMac ferry system links the mainland with dozens of islands on the Firth of Clyde and west coast of Scotland, with ports in Stornoway on Lewis, Brodick on Arran, Craignure on Mull and holiday destinations such as Gigha, Islay and the Uists in the outer Hebrides.

On Friday services are likely to run on only 10 of the smaller routes out of the 27 that CalMac operates. The strike follows a 48-hour work-to-rule on Wednesday and Thursday.

RMT members voted 90% in favour of industrial action after Scottish ministers put an eight-year contract to operate the state-owned and heavily subsidised services out to tender under EU procurement rules.

The private operator Serco, which already runs ferry routes to Orkney and Shetland, is expected to win the contract from the publicly owned CalMac, fuelling a bitter political row over whether this means services are now to be privatised.

Mick Cash, the RMT’s general secretary, said on Wednesday his members were frightened about possible job losses, cuts to their pensions and employment conditions, and reductions in services if Serco took over.

“RMT members on CalMac rightly feel that they are caught in the crossfire of an unnecessary and damaging tendering battle that leaves jobs, conditions and pensions hanging by a thread. That is simply intolerable,” he said.

Scottish ministers say the service will still be in public hands, with the ferries, port facilities and equipment still publicly owned and strict service conditions put in place. But unions and opposition MPs argue that Serco’s control would mean service cuts, redundancies and cost savings to generate profits.

The company also runs the Caledonian sleeper rail service between London and Inverness and Fort William, and the NorthLink ferries that link Orkney, Shetland and the Scottish mainland.

Tavish Scott, the Lib Dem MSP for Shetland, said Serco’s changes and cuts to northern ferry services after it won the contract from CalMac in 2012 gave staff on the west coast justified cause for concern.

Northern isles services were hit by the first ferry strike in 30 years after Serco took over, he said. “RMT members will rightly be petrified that they’ll be hit with changes if Serco take over the west coast routes.”

CalMac said it expected to staff enough ferries on Friday, running a full timetable on several services, to ensure around 40% of normal passenger numbers would be able to travel. But freight services to Stornoway, one of the most important routes served, would be halted.

Martin Dorchester, CalMac’s managing director, urged RMT members to consider the impact the strike would have on the islands and on businesses. “Our door continues to remain open to reach a satisfactory conclusion that suits all parties and avoids this unnecessary action,” he said.

Scottish ministers say that since the ferry system will remain in public ownership, the contract award would not amount to privatisation. Derek Mackay, the Scottish transport minister, said this and all previous Scottish governments had opposed the legal need to put the service out to tender because it dealt with lifeline services, but it was compelled to do so under EU law.

He said the government would still control the system’s assets and was not selling a controlling interest to the next operator, and he tried to reassure staff they would still get a fair and sustainable pension. He said the government had invested £1bn in improving services and would protect that investment.

“I emphasise that no matter the outcome of that process, the Scottish ministers will retain ownership and control of all the vessels and ports that are currently under public ownership. We will set routes, timetables and fares as now and retain full control of the services that the operator provides through the public service contract,” he told Holyrood on Wednesday.

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