Tuesday, April 7, 2020

UK Freight and Passenger Ferries Under Pressure as Coronavirus Measures Bite

Redundancies, Furloughed Staff but There's One Upside for Food Banks
Shipping News Feature

UK – British ferry routes are proving to be more than a little contentious in the current situation. With Stena and P&O both furloughing workers and making redundancies the odd contrast between passenger carriage and essential freight services are, as with air cargo, making for a completely revised situation for the carriers involved.

Nowhere is this disparity of trade more clearly delineated than in Scotland where CalMac Ferries has seen passenger numbers drop by 95% since new rules on essential ferry travel were put in place. The west coast ferry operator introduced a 'lifeline' timetable recently aimed at keeping essential goods, services and people going to and from the islands.

Since then the company has carried just 2593 passengers compared to 57,233 for the same period last year, some services running with just one or two passengers along with those vital goods and services. CalMac seeks evidence of Island residency or key worker status for all customers on all sailings. Commercial customers have been made aware that they are expected to provide evidence to their drivers that they are carrying essential goods or providing essential services as defined by the Scottish Government.

Throughout March commercial vehicles are also down by 32% over the same period last year, with the company operating its fleet of 33 vessels servicing 28 routes from Campbeltown in the south to Stornoway in the north. CalMac’s Managing Director, Robbie Drummond, observed:

“This has been an extremely challenging time for our staff and our communities, and I want to praise both for the way in which they have handed these unique circumstances. It is hugely encouraging that the public are paying attention to the Government advice of do not travel unless your journey is absolutely essential.

”We are fully committed to keeping lifeline services running to the islands we support, bringing in food, fuel and medical supplies and taking off goods vital to keeping local economies running. The vast majority of people are getting that message loud and clear and we are only turning away a very small number at our ports.”

On board the company's fourteen ships with retail outlets all have been shut down, leaving the west coast ferry operator sifting stock, and anything with a sell by date within three months, including soft drinks, confectionary, crisps, cakes and biscuits, will be donated to local food banks. CalMac’s Head of Sales, Kurt Hart, commented:

“Given that we are not in position to determine when our on-board retail outlets will be open again, it makes sense to find a use for products that will be out of date soon, otherwise they would just end up being thrown out. It is better someone gets the benefit of these products before they are past their sell by date.”

Meanwhile North Link Ferries is currently running an essential lifeline service between the Scottish Mainland and Orkney and Shetland and again warning passengers only to travel if their journey is essential. The company has faced further problems this week with the weather causing numerous delays to services.

The changes proposed at P&O have meanwhile infuriated the maritime union RMT. The union, which organises Seafarer Ratings on P&O Ferries Irish Sea, North Sea and Dover-Calais fleet says that it has been given a consultation document proposing a series of unacceptable changes to Ratings’ terms and conditions, including no strike clauses, scrapping benefits for long service and leave restrictions.

The union says the company is attempting to apply all re-negotiated crewing and terms and conditions, including on new ferries they have ordered from China that were due for delivery in 2023 and 2024. P&O Ferries Limited’s ultimate owner is the global corporation, DP World, based in the United Arab Emirates. RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash was cutting in his criticism, saying:

“Threatening permanent cuts to seafarers jobs, pay and conditions and the maritime supply chain at a time of national crisis sends a message of utter contempt to my members and the country as a whole. Job cuts, pay cuts, taking annual leave in rest periods, replacing UK seafarers with cheaper foreign crews, statutory redundancy, cuts to sick pay, it’s all of the things that P&O Ferries have always wanted to do to our members and the UK economy.

“To use the temporary market conditions created by the Coronavirus to attack our members, the maritime workers this country will always need, is nothing short of contemptuous and the Government need to step in here to provide more guarantees to protect British seafarers’ jobs and apprenticeships for the future.

“P&O Ferries say that no one is going to bail them out. Maybe they should go back to their corporate masters at DP World in Dubai who will pay a $332 million dividend to private shareholders on 29 April. That would easily cover the £28.4 million P&O Ferries want to rip out of the hands of my hard working members and their families. If P&O think that holding a gun to our members’ heads whilst sprinting towards the cliff edge is ‘consultation,’ then they’ve got another think coming.”

P&O responded with a statement clarifying how difficult they, and the other carriers are finding it to balance the future of a company whilst trying best to retain staff, saying:

"In these extremely challenging and unprecedented times, we are working hard to secure support totalling just over £250 million to safeguard jobs and the viability of the business, so we can keep critical goods flowing. That requires the support of all stakeholders, including the UK government. Today we have started presenting proposals to the unions whose support is also absolutely essential. They need to work with us to implement these changes urgently, otherwise the business will run out of cash and even more jobs will be lost.”

As tensions rise across the industry the UK Chamber of Shipping has called for immediate support from the UK government to ensure freight continues to flow into the country. UK Chamber Chief Executive Bob Sanguinetti said:

“We have already seen a number of ferry companies reduce their services and send a large number of their staff home. Unless these companies get access to the government financial packages now, this is likely to be followed by further reduction of services, or indeed companies going out of business.

”We are being told that it is fast becoming cheaper to lay ships up than to keep them running at a loss. This will put at risk our vital supply and essential logistics lines, the life blood of this nation. As an island nation, we should be underwriting the future sustainability of our industry and its seafarers. The time to act is now.”

Photo: With CalMac so far making donations of supplies to Ardrossan, Greenock, Oban, Barra and Stornoway Ian MacLennan, Donna Maxwell and Keith MacMillan from the MV Isle of Mull prepare a shipment for distribution.