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Council / ‘Unpicking’ the towage contract not possible, SIC tells tug men

Union says its members ‘just want to be treated fairly’

Tanker Leo leaving Sullom Voe port in July last year. Photo: John Bateson

GRANTING the men who work on the council’s tugs at Sella Ness long service awards of one extra month’s salary could – potentially – expose Shetland Islands Council (SIC) to millions of pounds worth of equal pay claims.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison told Shetland News that it was not possible for the tug workers to start unpicking their special contractual arrangements with the council without undoing the entire set-up.

The men working on the Sullom Voe tugs have now overwhelmingly voted in favour of industrial action at the oil port, due to start in the middle of May.

The dispute comes at a difficult time with a lot of loose ends to be tied up in the hope of securing the long-term future of the oil terminal at Sullom Voe.

With negotiations on the conditions for oil from Clair to continue to flow through the terminal, the last thing the SIC needs is a strike that would disrupt the port’s ability to handle the tanker traffic.

The tug men are unhappy that they will just receive a £250 reward in recognition of 25 years of service whereas other council employees are entitled to be awarded a full monthly salary.

The long running dispute came to a head after the Unite union announced in early April that they would ballot its members over the issue.

Shetland Towage, the company running towage operations at the port, was incorporated into the SIC in 2006 with the terms and conditions of the employees protected under TUPE.

Sandison said giving in to union demands could expose the council to challenges from other employees under equal pay legislation.

Over recent years all local authority jobs have been re-evaluated as part of the equal pay process, but not those at the tugs as they are protected by TUPE.

She said that in 2019 the SIC received legal advice saying that whilst a group of staff is on TUPE, the council is protected as a defence from equal pay claims but only for as long all the terms and conditions are being kept intact.

SIC chief executive maggie Sandison: ‘You are either protected under TUPE or you harmonise’. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“So if we started picking bits off that agreement we would lose that protection,” Sandison said.

A referring to equal pay requests that exposed Glasgow City Council to £500 million worth of claims, the chief executive added: “It would take away our defence with regards to equal pay and that would expose the council.”

The only way, she said, for the tug men to be entitled to a month’s salary as a 25 year long service award would be to harmonise their terms and conditions with those of all other council employees.

“You are either protected under TUPE or you harmonise. (…) Generally, the terms and conditions for council staff are worse than the terms and conditions for towage staff,” Sandison said.

“The council’s position has always been: either harmonise or stay on your terms and conditions.”

Sandison added: ”We are the preferred location [for Clair oil] but still have to prove it. I suppose the timing of this [the threat of industrial action] is not good for the fact that that negotiation is still ongoing.

“Clair is the most significant contribution to the long-term future of the port, and we want to demonstrate that we can do this business.”

Unite’s industrial officer John Boland said most of the towage services terms and conditions have already been aligned with those of the council.

“We have been trying to get the SIC long service award applied to these Unite members for a number of years and we went through SIC grievances and appeals,” he said.

“We have also offered previously in 2015 to look at harmonisation, and were told by SIC that they did not want to do this. Unite’s legal team have looked at this dispute, and are confident that it is a valid trade dispute.

“Our members just want to be treated fairly the same as any other SIC employee, and be rewarded for the long service they have provided to their employer. It is ridiculous that it has had to get to this stage.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021