TUG crews who escort tankers in and out of Shetland’s oil port at Sullom Voe arebeing balloted on strike action after rejecting proposed changes to their working conditions.
Two weeks ago their employers at Shetland Islands Council opened a 90 day consultation on reducing crew sizes with new shift patterns on board the port’s powerful tugs, which are on standby around the clock.
The council is trying to save money in a bid to maintain their income from the commercial operation as oil throughput declines with the maturing of the North Sea fields.
It wants to reduce the number of tugmen from 48 to 32 and extend their working hours, introducing a new “on call” system when they are not on board the vessels.
The council’s plans have already seen difficult negotiations with harbour pilots and launch crews, which have led to staffing cuts and new conditions.
The tugmen have more industrial muscle as they are all members of a single union, Unite.
On Wednesday Unite regional organiser John Taylor confirmed they were being balloted on strike action that would close Europe’s largest oil exporting port.
Mr Taylor said: “This is extremely serious. Our members have intimated to us that they will take industrial action.
“That is no idle threat because our members have decided the conditions they have asked them to work under are unacceptable.
“Therefore it would appear that we have no other choice but to take industrial action and if that comes about then that port will shut.”
Mr Taylor said the men had put forward their own proposals to reduce the number of people working on the tugs while maintaining a safe harbour, and were disappointed not to have been invited to last month’s private meeting with councillors.
“We haven’t got a problem with the council meeting behind closed doors, but they might have asked us to make our position clear at that meeting and let our voice be heard.
“These guys are responsible not only for the safety of the people on the tugs, they are responsible for the safety of the boats that are coming in, and as importantly they are also responsible for the safety of the environment of Shetland.
“If they make a mistake there’s consequences that are extremely severe.”
SIC harbour board vice chairman Alastair Cooper, who lives beside the oil port, said that safety was paramount and he hoped that the union would continue negotiating.
“When we met in private the possibility of a ballot was recognised, but we have entered the 90 day period of negotiations. I would hope and trust that each side respects that and we do negotiate and try and find as much common ground in that 90 days as we can.”
On a separate matter, Mr Cooper said he shared concerns that the port’s control building which monitors vessel traffic was unstaffed during part of the night on Tuesday when a tanker was being loaded.
A staff member had called in sick shortly before their shift began and there had been no time to call in a replacement.
Harbourmaster Roger Moore insisted that safety had not been compromised, but Mr Cooper said he would be raising the matter at the next meeting of the harbour board.
“It’s the first time to my knowledge that we have faced this situation. Yes, I am concerned, but having said that the duty harbour master took the action which was appropriate at the time and as far as I know there were no adverse effect.”
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