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September 15, 2010

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Regulator is not tough enough on ferry operators, claims union

A union representing port and ferry workers has accused the regulator for the sector of not coming down hard enough on ferry companies that blatantly cut safety corners, putting the lives of ship passengers and crews at risk.

Unite is planning a gathering of port workers from around the UK and Europe in Hull later today (15 September) to protest against what it says is an increasing tendency by ferry companies to pressurise their staff into removing the vital safety equipment securing cargo and vehicles to the boats while technically out at sea.

The equipment is normally only removed once the boat has been tied securely to the harbour wall by trained dock workers but Unite members have reported to the union that operators are instructing crew to fast-track the safety tasks, seemingly to speed up the unloading process on docking ferries.

Such practices are in clear breach of the Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Cargo) Regulations 1999, says the union, but the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is responsible for enforcing the legislation, is failing to do so.

Spokesperson Mike Gibbons told SHP: “We believe it’s about saving time and costs but this is a very dangerous thing to do, and it should only be done by professional dockers. By not doing so, other vessels at sea, in estuaries, and coming into port are also placed in a very dangerous position. There could be significant consequences – all for the sake of saving 10 minutes.”

Unite says employers are also using the process to pay ferry crew a wage well below that earned by UK dock-workers. It claims there has also been a marked increase in the number of unskilled agency workers and people employed on zero-hours contracts in the ports, and that these workers are being paid far less than qualified staff. 

Added Mike Gibbons: “We are calling on the MCA to do something about this now-widespread practice – especially among sub-standard carriers, who often force crew to do these things against their will. The legislation hasn’t done enough to ensure safety equipment is not removed until the vessel is in port.”

The MCA regulates this activity through inspections of both UK and foreign ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) vessels. In light of the Stena Voyager incident in January 2009, in which an improperly-secured articulated road tanker crashed through a stern door of the ferry shortly after it had left Stranraer port in Scotland, the Agency issued additional guidance (MGN 418(M)) on stowing and securing vehicles.

In response to Unite’s claims, an Agency spokesperson told SHP: “If there are concerns about cases of non-compliance with these, or other aspects of cargo securing we would advise the specific cases are brought to the MCA’s attention so that they can be further investigated.”

But Unite national officer, Julia Long, said guidance is not enough to protect workers and passengers. She added: “Our ports and seas are dangerous places – they need regulations, and those regulations must be upheld. We believe that [the MCA guidance] is not being respected. It is time for it to act as a regulator should. No more guidance notes: get tough and uphold the law. Dockers should do dockside work, including the securing and release of vehicles and cargo, and ferry crew should be allowed to get on with the business of safe sailing.”
 

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Colin
Colin

This is not a question of saferty, it is a case of the dockers union trying to impose a closed shop on dock work. Ferry crews, when properly trained, are just as capable of securing and unsecuring cargo as dock workers – they just belong to a different union.

Ian
Ian

Mr Gibbons of Unite believes its about saving on time and costs, he talks of an increasing tendency to cut corners and that his members are being pressured, he is calling on the MCA to do something about these practices. My questions are as follows, in supporting their members have unite conducted or commissioned any independent audits of these widespread practices,have they discussed their findings with all parties including employees operators and the MCA?
everyone has a duty of care.