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Council / Tug workers’ contracts ‘discriminatory’, claims Unite branch chairman

Sullom Voe harbour tugs at work. Photo: John Bateson

AS INDUSTRIAL action on the Sella Ness harbour tugs gets set to commence on 17 May, positions on both sides of the dispute appear to be hardening.

The chairman of the local branch of Unite, John Halcrow, has now accused the towage workers’ employer, Shetland Islands Council, of making misleading statements.

In an interview with Shetland News, the council’s chief executive Maggie Sandison said 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 towage workers are aggrieved that under current arrangements they are not entitled to the equivalent of a month’s wage in recognition of 25 years of service to the council.

Unite members voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action to press for equality with other council staff.

The towage operation at the oil port of Sullom Voe became part of the council in 2006 when the men’s contracts with their previous employer, Shetland Towage, were transferred under TUPE.

Sandison said if the union wanted to start “picking bits off that arrangement” then the TUPE protection would be lost.

But Halcrow said the policy was discriminatory.

“It is regrettable that such misleading information is put into the public domain,” he said.

“This dispute has nothing to do with towage staff ‘starting to unpick’ their contractual arrangements, this issue has been ongoing for 15 years and stems from the council failing to honour the obligations they committed to in 2006.”

Providing an example, he went on to say: “There are staff who transferred from other council services – ferries/pilot launches – into the towage service following the takeover by the council, some with over 24 years council service at that time.

“These employees having completed 25 years service wholly within the council are being denied the council long service award.

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“They were never advised that such a policy would be applied to them, it does not exist in any written form and it was impossible for these employees – or indeed with those tasked with recruiting them – to be aware of the existence of this policy.

“Any reasonable observer would conclude this is an act of blatant and unfair discrimination.”

In response, Sandison said she had no further comment to make.

Referring to a statement by the chief executive in regard to legal advice the council had received in 2019 about  the possibility of opening the door to equal pay claims should the TUPE arrangement not be kept intact, Halcrow said the contractual arrangements had already been ‘unpicked’.

“I’ve not seen this advice, but my immediate observation is that this horse has long since bolted with the council choosing to ‘pick off’ an index linked pay formula incorporated into the TUPE terms immediately following the transfer,” he said.

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