Monday, September 30, 2013

Freight Ferry and Container Shipping Service Battle of Words Continues

Unions Line Up Against Latest Plan to Increase Services and Cut Costs
Shipping News Feature

UK – A battle is under way on the high seas between maritime unions and a local company over the provision of freight ferry services to the Isle of Man and the dispute has echoes of a similar container shipping project which foundered two years ago after a similar row. Nautilus, the union for professional seafarers and shore based maritime staff and the RMT transport workers union are together attacking plans by the Ellan Vannin Line to introduce more competition to island’s cargo services from the mainland.

The Ellan Vannin Line (EVL) is owned by island-based Sea Alliance Ltd and says the current services of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company are a monopoly, operated by a company which currently owes £200 million and charges 30% more than other Irish Sea services. The unions contend that the operator intends to undercut rates by using foreign staff, a charge the company denies. Commenting on the proposals Nautilus General Secretary, Mark Dickinson, said:

“The company behind this proposal claims the new service will bring down prices, but we have to ask at what cost? The Isle of Man Steam Packet provides a safe, reliable and quality service and as history has shown us there simply isn’t room for competition – and especially competition that undermines its values by the use of cheap foreign labour. We have yet to see these latest plans materialise, but we suspect linkage to the failed Mezeron operation which sought to bring in Estonian-flagged ferries with cheap crews on substandard employment conditions.

“We dispute the assumptions behind these latest proposals, as there is clear independent evidence from the Tynwald Select Committee that the Steam Packet fares are very competitive. We will join forces with other unions and resist any attempt to undermine our members’ jobs through unfair and exploitative competition and believe that this new threat once again demonstrates the urgent need for governments to bring in the measures to protect British jobs, terms and conditions on ferry services to and from the Isle of Man.”

Comments from the RMT leadership were not as measured, General Secretary Bob Crowe talked of ‘scavengers’ once again attempting to exploit a life line route and threatening 300 jobs, whilst National Secretary Steve Todd said:

“Once again the vultures are hovering over the Isle of Man Steam Packet and once again we are mobilising to fight them off. This is an action replay of the failed Mezeron operation which relied on flagged-out ships and an exploited, overseas workforce to try and take out the Steam Packet and the highly-valued service it provides to the Island community. The political, public and industrial fight starts now.”

The Mezeron operation refers to a daily container service between Liverpool and Douglas which the company, based in Ramsey on the island, terminated in February 2011 following similar opposition. It still maintains general cargo and container services between Glasson Dock in Lancaster and Belfast to and from the Isle of Man.

Replying to the criticisms Kurt Buchholz, boss at Sea Alliance, referred to the 'inappropriate language' of the union chiefs and said that a market survey of residents and businesses clearly identified the desire for competition. He remains convinced that a rival to the established order would drive down costs and benefit islanders with cheaper imports and that the scheme will increase employment rather than reduce it. The scheme is delayed for the time being while the vessel the company has earmarked for the service is retained by the current owner who has ordered a newbuild replacement which is due for delivery ‘shortly’. Video footage of the public meeting held in July has been taken down from YouTube but a film made earlier this month is still available.

EVL has pointed out that the ferry fares from the mainland to Ireland, where there are sailings available from several operators as against the one service to and from the island, are disproportionate. At the time of going to press we were quoted on an 8 metre truck from Heysham to Warrenpoint (about 40 miles south of Belfast) £357.55 whilst sailing with the same vehicle from the same port into Douglas cost £846.13.

Under the terms of the latest agreement addendum (2004) between the Isle of Man Department of Transport and the Steam Packet Company there are minimum numbers of return trips which the company must provide per annum (936) and a minimum amount of metres of inbound freight capacity per week (7,800), as well as numerous other clauses regarding standards of service, speed of vessels and excess capacity at certain times to coincide with events such as the TT races. The agreement runs to 2020 with a possible extension to 2026.

Photo: The vessel EVL proposes to introduce on the route.