Sunday, June 28, 2015

RoRo Ferry and Cross Channel Tunnel Problems Continue to Confound Freight Interests

Threats, Promises and Insults in a Violent Week of a Long Running Dispute
Shipping News Feature

FRANCE – UK – For our sins the situation we predicted earlier this month regarding the uncertainty surrounding the future for the disenfranchised staff of RoRo freight and passenger ferry operator MyFerryLink has, unfortunately, come to an all too predictable head this week. It would seem that some of the 580 or so SCOP SeaFrance personnel who face redundancy when the company ceases services on July 2 became frustrated and initiated the actions which has seen the port of Calais effectively blockaded and acts of arson bring undersea Eurostar services to a halt.

As we pointed out, the employment records of native staff working from the French ferry ports are less than exemplary in the eyes of potential employers such as DFDS which has purchased two of the MyFerryLink (ex SeaFrance) ferries from the current owners i.e. Eurotunnel. Disputes ranging back to the days when SNCF owned SeaFrance paint the employees in a poor light, and this week’s actions can have hardly boosted the opinions of the potential employers.

This view has been heartily endorsed by Eurotunnel which has issued a statement making it clear that ‘the recent protests by members of the Maritime Nord Union will only serve to compromise the proposal to recruit staff by DFDS’, and confirming that the SCOP SeaFrance personnel were never directly employed by MyFerryLink or the tunnel operator, but worked as subcontractors under a fixed term contract, now expired.

DFDS however, having seen Calais grind to a halt on June 23, issued a statement the following day to say, having considered the options and interests of all stakeholders, it was prepared to offer the administrators of SCOP SeaFrance a deal which it estimated would mean employment for 202 of the redundant workers.

Furthermore DFDS would operate three vessels between Calais and Dover: one of the current ships on the route, plus the two vessels newly chartered from Eurotunnel, bringing its cross channel services up to nine ships, including five under the French flag, on four routes from France, utilising 1,000 French staff, 650 of which would work in Calais. Niels Smedegaard, CEO of DFDS, commented:

"Given the overcapacity in the market, DFDS had originally planned to operate two ships on the route in order to adapt the capacity to the market situation. However, following our dialogue with various stakeholders, we have decided to make an offer for part of SCOP SeaFrance, and thus attempt to save more than 200 jobs by operating three ships instead.

“DFDS has been in the French ferry market for 15 years, and in recent years with ships under the French flag and with French crews. We are very pleased with the loyalty, skills and commitment of our crews, including the many former employees of SeaFrance, and we are committed to continue developing a sustainable and long-term business in France that can benefit all of our employees, customers, and partners in the Calais region."

So it seems the debacle which has run now for around six years may finally be almost at an end although the language coming from the Maritime Nord Union this week would hardly give that impression. Seeming to forget that this situation was engendered by the liquidation of SeaFrance by state owners SNCF after prolonged industrial action by his members, and apparently dismissive of the DFDS proposal, union General Secretary Eric Vercoutre warned there would be further disruption if Eurotunnel did not tear up the agreement with DFDS which allows for a bareboat charter for the two vessels until the French authorities inalienability clause is lifted or, at the latest, in mid-2017, when full ownership is to be transferred.

Msieu Vercoutre was pinning his hopes on SCOP SeaFrance taking over services, an option already discounted by Eurotunnel, after SCOP claimed it had received an offer of funding to the tune of €10 million from the Nord Pas de Calais Regional Council. Eurotunnel’s response was unequivocal, a statement read:

“The SCOP SeaFrance attempted, without success, to put together a takeover plan. The recent promises of support are late arriving and useless and do nothing but create false hope for the employees. The sale of the SCOP SeaFrance, which was decided upon by the judicially appointed Administrators (AJ) does not, in any way, relate to the ships which are owned by the Group but solely to the few assets owned by the SCOP. This process cannot in any way lead to offers to acquire the ships and neither can it enable unsuccessful candidates to take up new positions.

“Groupe Eurotunnel regrets that in the meeting which was held, at its initiative, between DFDS and the AJ, on 9 June 2015, the latter declared that they did not wish to discuss social issues. Groupe Eurotunnel is concerned that the recent protests by members of the Maritime Nord Union will only serve to compromise the proposal to recruit staff by DFDS. Groupe Eurotunnel, which has kept the governments, local authorities and the Maritime Nord Union regularly informed of the state of progress in negotiations, cannot allow it to be believed that there is a better solution than that which has been put in place. Groupe Eurotunnel requests that the AJ immediately start the negotiations for which they are responsible with the acquirer.”

With even the French government growing tired of the problems on a route it once fought tooth and nail to keep open (starting the subsidised Transmanche service in 2001 until it was proscribed by the European Commission and taken over by LD Lines five years on), it looks doubtful that Eurotunnel can or will be diverted from a project it originally had high hopes for as a supplement to its own subsea services.

So it seems the British authorities which wanted to ensure a competitive set of services between the Pas de Calais and Kent have achieved their aim and, assuming DFDS plans press ahead there will be a more settled summer on the route, whether that is the aim of the French maritime unions remains to be seen. This week, after a meeting of COBR, the emergency committee, the UK government warned it expected further problems and was working closely with the French authorities to minimise the impact of any further disruption and launching an interactive map for the use of stranded travellers.

For a full history of this long running story follow link in the News Search box using suitable keywords (SeaFrance, MyFerryLink etc.)