ALL parties involved in a dispute over the future of Scotland’s west coast ferries have been urged to keep talking as a strike suspended two thirds of services.
Members of the RMT union have begun 24 hours of industrial action in protest at a tendering process that could see routes change hands from publicly-owned CalMac to private firm Serco.
RMT members are rock solid in their support for the action we have been forced to take to defend CalMacMick Cash, RMT
CalMac’s contract to run the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services comes to an end next year and the Scottish Government has put the contract out to tender to comply with EU law.
RMT union members at CalMac are seeking assurances about jobs and conditions.
As the strike got under way, CalMac managing director Martin Dorchester said the action was hurting communities and businesses.
He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “I think it’s the wrong thing to be doing at the beginning of the year and that there’s no need for us to be in industrial action at this moment.
“There’s plenty of time for us to talk. We’re hurting our communities, we’re hurting our businesses and I would urge all employees to come back to work, to work together and deliver our services.”
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said. “There are now no excuses. The assurances on jobs, staffing, safety and the future of the ferry services that RMT has been seeking from the start should be met as a matter of urgency to allow us to move forwards with security and certainty.
“RMT members are rock solid in their support for the action we have been forced to take to defend CalMac from an unnecessary and damaging attack and the ball is now firmly in CalMac’s court and we expect them to act swiftly now.”
Transport and Islands Minister Derek Mackay said the Scottish Government was working hard to find a way through the dispute.
He told the programme: “I understand why members of the RMT would not want to be employed by Serco. I understand their point of view.
“But Scottish ministers cannot prejudice the process and I cannot rule out such an operator for tendering in the process. If I did so I would be challenged and I would be challenged to the extent that the services themselves would be jeopardised by acting unlawfully.
“I have to conduct this tender process in accordance with European law but I can assure everyone that we’re working very hard to serve our island communities and look after the interest of the employees as best we can within the law.
“That’s why I would encourage people to keep talking because I’m convinced there is a way forward that can protect everyone in these circumstances.”
He denied that the process was a means of privatisation by the back door and pointed out that £1 billion had been invested in ferries since 2007.
Mr Mackay said: “I can guarantee that whatever the outcome of this tender process, the vessels will remain in public ownership, the timetables will be set by the Scottish Government as will the fares.
“So this is not privatisation. It’s a tender exercise that we would rather not have to undertake but we have to undertake it so we will ensure that it’s transparent and it’s fair.
“I think we’ve shown that ferries and ferry services are a priority for this Government in term of transport and we’ve done everything we can as well to try and minimise disruption through this industrial action.
“And I hope further industrial action can be averted by further discussions. We’re working very hard to try and find a way forward.”
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, which represents 100 ticket-office staff and managers at publicly-owned CalMac Ferries, will ballot members on industrial action next week.
Nine of 27 routes will sail as normal or to an amended timetable today, with about 40% of the normal passenger capacity expected to be available.
The routes affected will be those serviced by the company’s larger vessels including the Outer Hebrides, Mull, Colonsay, Coll, Tiree and Islay.
Additional bus, rail and air services have been arranged to help mitigate the impact of the action, with passengers urged to check the CalMac website for the latest information.