Tug Strike May Tie Up Royal Navy Base at Plymouth

qe carrier
The Royal Navy carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth departs Plymouth with a tug escort, January 2020 (RN)

Published Dec 17, 2020 1:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

For a five-day period at the end of this month, the Royal Navy may have trouble getting its warships in and out of its base at Plymouth. Due to a work schedule dispute between unionized tug crews and the base's contracted towing company, the commercially-operated harbor tugs at Plymouth will remain tied up at the pier between December 25 and December 30, according to UK trade union Unite. 

The dispute centers on whether the tug operator may put its crews onto a three-week rotation instead of the current one-week rotation. Either would be exceptionally brief by deep-sea standards, which typically entail multi-month contracts. The average term of seagoing service is longer than ever today due to the COVID pandemic: worldwide, an estimated 400,000 seafarers are currently stranded on board beyond the expiry date of their contracts - including thousands who have been working aboard for more than a year.

In a statement, Unite accused tug operator Serco Marine of trying to "eke every last penny out of the contract" by switching the crew rotation from one week on / one week off to three weeks on / three weeks off. In response, roughly 36 out of the 40 tug crewmembers affected have voted to go on strike beginning Christmas Day. 

“Unite’s Serco Marine members have taken the difficult decision to strike because the company’s bosses, many of whom have never worked at sea, are refusing to listen to reason," said Unite regional coordinating officer Terry Keefe. “The workers are reluctantly taking strike action but feel as though they have no option. Changing from a one-week to a three-week rota will dangerously increase fatigue in a demanding job where there is absolutely no room for mistakes. It will also play havoc with people’s family lives."

If the first five-day strike does not achieve results, the crewmembers plan to strike a second time on January 11. 

"The Ministry of Defence will not be happy that its contractor Serco Marine’s behavior will cause Christmas chaos for Royal Navy vessels. Nor will the ministry be impressed that Serco is forcing through dangerous rota changes in order to eke every last penny out of the contract," said Keefe.