Tuesday, November 8, 2016

RMT Union and Serco Subcontractor Seatruck Ferries at War Over Below Minimum Pay  

Wage Rate Paid to Merchant Seamen 'Beggars Belief'

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Shipping News Feature UK – Or, if you listen to some, not the UK, as sailing between Aberdeen and the Orkney and Shetland isles, all in Britain last time we looked, are considered as ‘international voyages’ according to those running the essential Scottish Island freight and passenger ferry services. And who are these operators with such scant geographical knowledge? Step forward Seatruck Ferries, owned by the Clipper Group and contracted by Northlink Ferries, in turn owned by Serco (a name not unfamiliar in matters of Scottish island ferry controversy) who in turn have been contracted by the Scottish Ministers.

The matter has been raised by transport union RMT and, let’s face it, it’s not the first time. The RMT has a history with Serco, anyone familiar with the recent reappointment of Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) as the operator of choice on the Clyde and Hebridean Island routes will know that relations between the labour representatives and the Northlink Ferry owners are not exactly amicable. Lately the RMT claimed that staff aboard Seatruck vessels were paid as little as £3.66 per hour. The response – ‘these are old figures, everybody gets £4.60 or more’. The fact this is still way below the UK minimum wage seems to trouble Seatruck not a jot.

On Friday last the RMT protested both at Aberdeen Harbour and later outside the offices of Callum McCaig SNP MP and Maureen Watt SNP MSP before handing out leaflets outside the harbour entrance. Seatruck, headquartered in Heysham, stated that over half of its crews aboard the Hildasay and Helliar ferries already receive the equivalent of the UK minimum wage or more, a comment which leads one to conclude that the remainder are being underpaid as far as any UK employer is concerned.

This then is the sticking point, Seatruck claims it is ‘an international employer’ and as such is not liable to UK working terms and conditions. The company actually offered to sell the two ships to the Scottish government, an offer refused as the vessels were deemed ‘not a viable option’. Seatruck spokesman Tony Redding commented:

“The RMT was suggesting that people were paid as little as £3.66 per hour, which is untrue. 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 exceed £4.60 per hour. We can understand the sensitivity of it. It’s a lifeline route. It’s absolutely crucial to the Northern Isles.”

“[Our company pay structure] can’t make an exception for the two ships, these are international ships, they’re not UK ships and they’re not UK nationals on board the ships. They’re not covered by the UK national wage. The crews on board our ships are paid multiples of their own indigenous national minimum wage.

”[If Transport Scotland bought the ships] 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. The charter will run through to mid-2018, basically, every time the RMT beats its drum, this issue comes up.”

The RMT is incensed that the Scottish government accepted terms in a contract which effectively endorses its subcontractors to employ a company paying below minimum wages for routes which entirely serve UK destinations. Its spokesman, Gordon Martin, said:

”The latest figure we have is £3.66, although we did accept all along it may have gone up. 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 start.”

Managing director of NorthLink Ferries, Stuart Garrett, seemed to blame his subcontractor company’s owners for the debacle, pleading effectively that he was powerless to change the way they operate. He said in a statement:

”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.”

The word from Holyrood is that politicians are ‘deeply disappointed’ at Seatruck’s behaviour, but like Serco and subsidiary Northlink, there is no sign of them doing anything much about the situation concerning the essential ferry services they refer to as ‘lifeline’, apart from issuing a statement saying ‘work was being undertaken to ensure future contracts paid the UK minimum regardless of where company and crew are based’. Meanwhile Orkney and Shetland Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael spoke at the Westminster parliament on the matter saying:

”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 he thought the problem went even further than the two ships mentioned and named two other offshore supply vessels, the Malaviya Seven and Malaviya Twenty, both owned by Mumbai headquartered GOL Offshore, which were under investigation by UK authorities for non-payment of wages. He called the practice ‘scandalous’ and promised to continue to raise it with the government. Meanwhile RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said:

“It is scandal that ships of shame are sailing out of Aberdeen, with workers on poverty rates that make a mockery of our legal minimum wage, under a contract that is under the control of the SNP administration. This outrage, which is stain on the reputation of the great city of Aberdeen, has to be ended and ended now. RMT is demanding urgent talks with the Minister and an assurance that he will step in immediately to end this modern day slavery in Scottish waters.”

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