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ELEVEN crewmen, including four pilots, working at the oil port of Sullom Voe have left their jobs as part of a deal to modernise the pilot boat service for visiting tankers and reduce costs.
Port operators Shetland Islands Council have spent the past 19 months negotiating with pilots and crews to bring them under the authority’s single status agreement, which was agreed by most council employees almost two years ago.
Under Tuesday’s agreement, the number of crewmen will be reduced from 22 to 15 and four of the 10 pilots will take early retirement from 1 April, saving the council around £875,000 a year, it says.
The agreement means pilot boat crews will work 12 hour shifts and then be paid for being on call, instead of staying on board the pilot boats for 72 hour stretches, a system that was introduced when the port opened to tankers in 1979.
At its peak in 1985, around 800 tankers exported North Sea oil from Europe’s largest terminal every year. This number has now fallen to just 200 with the decline in offshore production.
As a result the council’s income has reduced substantially from more than £8 million a decade ago to around £2.5 million in the past year. The SIC’s policy is to earn £4 million a year from the port.
A project to make the port more efficient, called Ports of the Future, was introduced in July 2009, but negotiations with crews have met many stumbling blocks prior to this week’s settlement.
Regional organiser with the Unite trade union, John Taylor, said that it had been very hard to fit the pilot boat crews into the single status agreement.
“The launch crews ran a system which was unique within the council, and when single status was devised nationally, they were not taken into consideration. So reaching this agreement has been a very difficult and complex process,” Mr Taylor said.
The new system will be reviewed in 12 months to see if it works, and the crews have been assured that their salaries will be protected for the next three years. Management will also look at ways of redesigning their jobs so that their wages will not go down in the future.
The SIC’s chief negotiator, executive director of infrastructure services Gordon Greenhill, said the council had a responsibility to make harbour operations more efficient and to bring all staff under single status.
“The negotiations have taken some time to conclude, but I think that today’s signing is an important step towards achieving the aims we were set by the council. The savings we’ve delivered so far are very significant for the council and the wider Shetland community,” he said.
Now the council is embarking on the equally challenging task of bringing into single status the 48 men who operate the tugs at Sullom Voe, who have worked similar long shifts as the pilot boat crews for the past 32 years.
Mr Taylor said that both sides hoped to find a way forward within six months. “We have learned a lot from the discussion with the pilot boat crews. By September we should know whether we can achieve an agreement through negotiation,” he said.
Meanwhile some of the pilots who are staying with the council are negotiating individually in an attempt to protect their pension rights. Under their new contract, their retirement age has risen from 60 to 65.
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