SHETLAND’S entire economy could be put at risk if the local council goes ahead with plans to replace marine staff at the oil port of Sullom Voe with untrained replacements, according to trade union Unite.
On 5 January Shetland Islands Council gave tanker pilots at Sullom Voe 90 days to accept a new contract of employment which would raise their retirement age from 60 to 65.
The move followed lengthy negotiations to squeeze port staff into the council’s single status agreement that was settled with the majority of the council 18 months ago.
Further talks are to take place with the pilots and the crews who operate pilot boats and tugs in the harbour.
However those talks have been soured by reports the council has approached a major recruitment agency for pilots who could work at Sullom Voe at short notice.
This week Unite regional industrial organiser John Taylor warned that the council was treading into dangerous waters if it wanted to replace experienced pilots with recruits who were not trained in navigating the treacherous seas around Sullom Voe.
Mr Taylor said he could think of no reason to recruit new pilots unless it was to break a possible strike or make up numbers if some or all the 10 existing pilots refuse to sign the new contract.
He said strike breaking was not the action of a responsible employer and employing agency pilots did not comply with the Pilotage Act 1987 or the Department of Transport’s Port Marine Safety Code.
Any temporary pilot would require between three and six months training before they were competent to work in Sullom Voe.
Mr Taylor warned: “I can’t believe Shetland Islands Council would even consider doing something this rash, because when a pilot goes aboard a ship not only has he got responsibility for the well being of the ship and the safety of the crew, he’s also got responsibility for a major part of the Shetland economy.
“If one of those tankers runs aground and there is an oil spill or a major fire that would have a detrimental effect on the whole economy of Shetland.”
He added that if the council went ahead with the move, the union would immediately contact the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and oil company BP who operate the terminal at Sullom Voe.
“I don’t believe for one minute that the MCA or BP would sanction such a move, especially after Texas City and the Gulf of Mexico.”
The union has advised the council not to attempt to bring their marine staff under single status as it is a commercial operation running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while single status is designed for people who work more straight forward shifts.
Mr Taylor said: “We suggested the only way around this is to take the pilots, the pilot boat crews and the tug crews out of the single status and have it is as a separate entity. They said no.
“At a time when we are trying to resolve a very difficult and tricky situation with the implementation of single status and Ports for the Future, this new matter has created a feeling of mistrust and that doesn’t help resolve these negotiations.”
The SIC’s chief negotiator Gordon Greenhill, executive director of infrastructure services, has refused to comment on the talks.
However he has said that the council would not be acting prudently if it did not have contingency plans in place in the event of strike action.
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