Don't blame unions for Wightlink woes Mr Seely

By Geoff Kite, regional organiser, RMT Union, Ryde:

Originally published in the Isle of Wight County Press. Visit Article.

I WRITE in response to IW MP Bob Seely and Keith Greenfield, CEO Wightlink, (CP 18-06-21 and 25-06-21).

While welcoming Bob Seely’s comments about public ownership we wonder if he does understand the reasons for the ferry companies’ failures or is this another soundbite that will never appear in his election manifesto?

The RMT speaks as the representative of most workers at Wightlink and Hovertravel and we have been long aware of the reasons that the ferry business model does not deliver the service the IW deserves.

Mr Seely claims to have exposed the business model of the Island ferry companies; he needs to explain why he is so late to reach this conclusion.

It would be apparent to those who actually live on the Island that the ownership structure detrimentally affects the service, and this has been common knowledge for so much longer than just two years past, when Bob Seely laughably claims to have exposed it.

The private ownership programme at Wightlink did not start 25 years ago but in 1984 when Margaret Thatcher used the sale of Sealink Ferries stock as a practice privatisation.

The needs of the public did not enter into this, which is why no service obligation was ever imposed.

The new owners, Sea Containers, divided its bonanza into individual parcels. One of these became Wightlink, which was the subject of a so called “management buy-in” which allows the first of the venture capitalists to get their hands on the goose that lays the golden egg, Wightlink.

What follows is borrowing monies on high interest rates rather than government backed investment, five-year planning cycles, infrastructure investments made for quick profit rather than service resilience, new vessels bought with inter-company loans used to avoid taxes, reduction in staffing levels, reduction in maintenance, no planning for new vessels and squeezing every bit of a lemon.

In Wightlink’s case, larger vessels are seen as a way of maximising profit by the company. While being governed by the MCA, the current crewing levels for these are still lower than the Sealink-designed vessels were intended to run with. However while there has been an increased amount of traffic, this makes no allowance for congestion at ports, with hourly bottlenecks and carries the risk as we currently see of all your golden eggs being in one basket.

A timetable of four ferries crossing the Solent as needed is much more resilient then one or two larger ferries.

Conservative MP Bob Seely refers to British Rail sweetheart deals and union practises. I would like him to elaborate on what he means by this.

The only sweetheart deal we are aware of is the company doling out huge bonuses for keeping the cash flowing.

Our members have a contract which they expect to be honoured.

Does the CEO of Wightlink think continuing eroding of terms and conditions, attacks on pensions and reduction of staffing levels are acceptable or safe?

Many employees are his constituents, and their wages support the Island.

They are the people who are there when a ferry runs, disruption and breakdowns occur but the RMT members are not involved in decisions meaning less money for maintenance or reduced timetables.

Those decision are made by people seeking profit and are enabled by Bob Seely and his political masters.

Mr Seely’s belated comments and cheap shots at the workers who part funded the company’s operation through the pandemic from their own wages and waiving guaranteed working conditions to keep the Island supplied, says more about his eye for a bandwagon than his knowledge of operating a cross-Solent ferry route.

RMT would welcome a government-led approach to re-nationalise the service, providing support for proper planning, investment, and quality employment for skilled workers

A public service should be controlled by its stakeholders, not a Whitehall mandarin or crony appointed for their closeness to a particular party.

Mr Greenfield states in his response that they have worked with the trade union. I fail to see how having an industrial dispute with the RMT is working with us, Wightlink used a sledgehammer to close the pension scheme, cut salaries and remove T and Cs, and only came to a resolution with the threat of strike action.

He also fails to mention members gave up all T and Cs and part of their salary for six months to help when the company claimed it was in financial trouble, yet now states he had full support from shareholders and banks.

Although I agree no compulsory redundancies are being made, a reduction in headcount is taking place under the guise of mutual severance.

However, these volunteers have been told they have to work through the summer months and train new staff on lower salaries and T and Cs before they are allowed to leave.

He also fails to mention the winter timetable is cut to the barebones and staffing numbers are being cut, including permanently closing ticket offices.

This is at a time when Wightlink staff are facing a barrage of complaints at the ports because Wightlink had already cut the staff in call centre, leaving angry passengers on hold for hours and no one to talk to.

When passengers arrived at the port the staff were unable to help because all ticket offices were closed and a “here to help” stand put in front of it.

The only help the member of staff could give was the number to the call centre or advise on how to use the self service ticket machine.

This union will not allow this company to put our members in direct conflict with angry passengers through the inept management of Wightlink, including the CEO.

I ask all passengers to remember that staff are doing the best they can and it is their bosses who have taken away their ability to provide the service you have paid for.

Prices will continue to raise as salary and skills are cut.

It is time to re-nationalise and give the Islanders what they deserve, an affordable and reliable service.

The RMT is willing to have an open debate about ferry services with Mr Seely and Wightlink.