ARE Scotland's islands facing a period of uncertainty with the potential to damage livelihoods and threaten the existence of livelihoods in distinctive, if fragile, hinterlands?
The question must be begged in light of yesterday's announcement by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union that it will ballot workers on strike action in a dispute about conditions and pensions. The threat appears premature at this stage. The union is concerned that the Scottish Government is preparing to put Caledonian MacBrayne's Ardrossan to Brodick, Wemyss Bay to Rothesay, Oban to Craignure and Largs to Cumbrae routes out to tender for a new contract beginning in October next year, resulting in what it says could be the undermining of workers' terms.
This despite the fact that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (Tupe) protects employees' terms and conditions of employment when a business is transferred from one owner to another. So what is the fuss and would it be worth the threat to island communities and mainland businesses whose livelihoods are inextricably linked to them?
It is the RMT's job to defend its members' rights and it says it preserved employees' contracts and pensions by threatening strike action against Serco, which won the tender for Pentland Firth and Orkney and Shetland routes in a bidding war with NorthLink Ferries, CalMac's sister company. But it seems irresponsible at this stage to threaten a strike and disrupt vital ferry services on the basis that CalMac cannot give assurances about protecting workers' pensions and conditions in the event of a private-sector bidder winning tenders at some future date.
The Scottish Government insists it has no intention of selling off routes and is committed to supporting islands by providing reliable ferry services. That is a reassurance it would inevitably want to impart, given that breaking up state-owned CalMac on the SNP's watch would do little for the electoral prospects of those Nationalist MSPs alone who represent communities served by the ferry operator. There are, however, legitimate worries about the future of the ferry network, prompted in large part by the Government's reform programme for public sector procurement aimed at enhancing economic impact and value for money. It is important, especially in a recession, to make every penny of public money work hard but what would be the impact of market testing CalMac routes with a view to tendering them separately? Would private sector operators cherry-pick the profitable routes, leaving a much-weakened CalMac to provide lifeline services to our most remote and fragile communities, with all the implications for public subsidies? Would they be able to match the back-up services (vessels of last resort) that CalMac can provide in an emergency?
On balance, the strike threat looks at present like an unnecessary distraction when there are issues about the future of ferry services that the Government must clarify.
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