FEARS are growing for the future of staff employed on Scotland's major ferry service to Northern Ireland.

Maritime workers on the Stena Line Cairnryan to Belfast ferries say they could be replaced by foreign crews as the company bids to cut £10 million from costs.

Scores of workers either side of the North Channel could be affected by the move, which first emerged in a letter to Stena Line employees last month. According to reports in Belfast, the recruitment of foreign workers is a possible cost-cutting option.

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Stena's Irish Sea route manager Paul Grant has been tasked with making savings from the seafaring staff on Stena's Irish Sea operations. He said the firm had not made money in a decade, prompting the exercise that has to be completed by next year.

Local MSP Alex Fergusson said he had been involved in discussions with the ferry operator in the last month. He said Stena had put up a robust case for taking the workforce along with it in its restructuring plans.

But the Tory MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries said: "I have spoken to Stena Line about overseas workers because the impact on the local economy would be immense. I was satisfied that it is not their intention to employ an overseas crew but the threat of that overhangs this process. I've been persuaded this would only be Stena's intention as a last resort."

A Stena Line spokeswoman said the firm was in discussions with trade unions and staff representatives "to help secure the continuing employment of its current Irish Sea seafarers and not to replace local seafarers with foreign crew".

The spokeswoman also address-ed claims that at least five foreign crew had been employed on the service in recent weeks. She said only when internal processes had been insufficient had crew been seconded from another Stena company to cover sickness.

Northern Ireland politician, Ukip MLA David McNarry, has now urged the ferry giant to issue an assurance that jobs are secure.

He said: "Cuts seldom result in improving services; they hit families hard. I would ask the Executive to investigate whether there is a problem. The public must be kept fully informed."

According to reports last night, staff had already been warned they could be replaced.

A Stena source estimated that more than 200 workers in Northern Ireland alone could be at risk. The source said: "Stena has asked us to accept longer working hours and unpaid leave to avoid replacement with foreign crews. People are beginning to feel threatened."