Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 41, November 14, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Isle of Wight Ferry Company Sizes Up for an Attack on Workers' Conditions

Wightlink have launched a consultation with staff following their announced £20m losses since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The terms of the "consultation", which amount to an ultimatum, are that the responses, comments and conclusions must be done in only 60 days. The company has a chequered history in dealing with the public and its workforce, and has changed hands a number of times since it was privatised. Only recently the company suspended its FastCat service between Portsmouth and Ryde Pier and reduced sailings between Lymington and Yarmouth. The ferry operator maintains it must become a more sustainable business to cope with future financial risks. From the narrow capital-centred perspective of the company's owners (50% owned each by Basalt Infrastructure Partners and Fiera Infrastructure), this means that the company must return a bottom-line profit.

The company has put forward three elements to ensure it emerges with what it sees are its monopoly rights: changes to pensions, flexibility in working patterns and changes to terms and conditions for future employees. The Sword of Damocles is held over the heads of the staff, who are told: accept the proposals, or there will be compulsory job losses.

The diminution of conditions includes an attack on the workers' defined-benefit pension scheme, using the cover of blaming the pandemic, with accruals to that scheme to be ended. In additional to the protection of existing benefits, the carrot is the doubling of company minimum contributions to the defined contribution pension to which most employees belong, with new poorer terms and conditions for new joiners. In this way, the company is using the pandemic to hasten its shift from defined benefits to defined contributions and so converting pension provision to a matter of personal saving.

Further, in preparation for redundancy, there is to be a "generous" mutual severance scheme and a pledge that no employee will lose their job as a result of the pandemic if the proposals are accepted. Through sleight of hand, the company is leaving the future pathway wide open.

"It is my duty to ensure that Wightlink survives this crisis, however long it lasts," Wightlink Chief Executive, Keith Greenfield, said. "We must manage our current costs and future financial risks to protect jobs and our lifeline connections for Islanders."

The CEO went on to say: "The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the travel sector and wider industry. There have been widespread job losses, changes to terms and conditions and long-term pay reductions. We do not want to see this happen at Wightlink. If we can reach agreement with our colleagues and trade unions to combat these financial challenges, we can avoid compulsory redundancies and protect Wightlink's services for the future."

The claim on the value created by the Wightlink workers are divided between those made by the shareholders (the bottom line profit), the owners of the company debt, the government in the form of tax, and the workers in the form of wages and pensions. The norms and practices of private companies like Wightlink ensure that the narrow aim of maximising the bottom line is what is pursued, and in particular, the claims of the workers is labelled a cost, the main cost to be cut. The organisation of the company and its decision-making process has been totally in the hands of the owners of the company with this aim. The public have seen no benefit out of the exorbitant fares and reduced services. At no time has there been a suggestion of a cut in what the owners of debt and equity or the government receive.

Attacking workers' terms and conditions or hiking fares has always been the solution put forward, and this can be interpreted as "business as usual". It cannot be accepted that the workers and the public pay for the crisis. There must be a change in the way companies operate. Industry is still trying to maintain the status quo, contrary to the demand that things need to operate in a new way. The economy cannot and must not maintain the current direction - it needs to change. Workers are fighting to defend their rights, and in the course of this are putting forward their own solutions.


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