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Ferguson shipyard will close if Scottish Government does not award orders

IT was August 2014 that Ferguson’s, Scotland’s last commercial shipyard, went into administration which would’ve resulted in the immediate loss of about 70 jobs on the river Clyde.

After more than a century in business, staff arrived for work at the Port Glasgow yard in the morning to be told most of the 77-strong workforce were being made redundant with immediate effect.

A handful of workers were retained to finish existing work and maintain the yard.

The company had called in KPMG as administrators after it could no longer withstand cashflow problems and a failure to secure new orders.

On the Tuesday of that week, unions had pressed Scotland’s then transport minister Keith Brown on the precarious state the yard found itself in. The GMB union and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions urged Alex Salmond, then first minister, to intervene and find a solution to save the yard.

On the Friday of that week, I called short my attendance at a meeting of the Board of Riverclyde Homes – Scotland’s third largest social landlord, where I served as chair of personnel – to head back from Glasgow to Port Glasgow.
Over that weekend, I was invited by the Scottish Government to join a task force with the aim of saving the shipyard from closure.

This was all only one month before the 2014 independence referendum. Many of the players involved, particularly those in the Scottish Labour Party, seemed more interested in using the plight of the yard as a stick to attack the potential of a Yes vote than saving it from closure.

However, there were two camps that this obviously wasn’t the case for. The first were the shop stewards of the yard. GMB Scotland shop stewards at Ferguson’s, Alex Logan and John McMunagle, were laser-focused on finding a solution that would secure work at the yard. They knew all too well that once the yard was gone, the skills would go with it. They weren’t interested in getting involved in anyone else’s politics. Their priority – as I’ve always viewed it to be – was to protect the jobs of their members and ensure those jobs are there for many years to come.

As the task force continued to meet, Alex Salmond was at work behind the scenes.

He was the driving force in the initiative to save the yard from closure, because when he was first minister, Scotland’s business leaders knew that Scotland was a country worth investing in.

Bizarrely, the other week at the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross attempted to attack Salmond for intervening to help save the yard from closure.

In Inverclyde, we’ve always known you can’t trust the Tories when it comes to shipbuilding, but not often do you get them saying the quiet bit out loud like wee Dougie did.

When Alex left office, there was every reasonable expectation that the skills of the workforce, the business experience of Mr McColl and a substantial potential order book for ferries appropriate for the yard would take this private business to success.

After well-documented issues with the tender, sadly the yard found itself in trouble again.

It seems that nobody in government is willing to take responsibility for one simple truth – the experimental LNG technology should never have been part of the design of the orders given to the yard. It was great to see the Glen Sannox complete a short successful sea trial last month. But she was running on diesel. If the Scottish Government had been more focused on procuring ferries that were fit for purpose for island communities as opposed to a “world first” in green technology then both vessels would’ve been complete with diesel engines five years ago.

In 2019, when it was clear that the design of the vessels was causing problems, I brought the Government to the table to try to get them to see sense, seek a sensible agreement with Jim McColl and move on. They opted instead to nationalise the yard. Again, the shop stewards were the ones at the forefront ensuring the Government listened.

Over the past years, as workers and shipbuilding in Inverclyde have had to put up with more negative stories than we would care to remember, there has yet to be a single documented example of poor workmanship being the cause of the problems with the construction of the Glen Sannox and the Glen Rosa. Design changes, CMAL, management, lack of government oversight, politics … you name it, the blame lies there, not with the workforce.

Therefore, looking ahead, yes, we need new ferries for our island communities, but where should they be built? Should the hundreds of millions of pounds of procurement spend go to shipyards in other parts of the world to help support their economy and their workers pay their bills? Or should Scottish Government procurement prioritise building up our own industrial capacity to protect jobs in Scotland and to keep wages in our own local economy?

I say without fear or apology that when it comes to Scotland, Scotland’s ferries should be built in Scotland’s shipyards.

But time is now running out. If SNP politicians and the Scottish Government agree with me then they need to get off the fence. They simply cannot keep Ferguson’s open with sound bites. There is no steel left to cut. There are no orders in the pipeline. There simply is not the work left to sustain a shipyard. The Glen Sannox is now out on trials. The Glen Rosa should be launched out of the yard shortly.

So what of the last commercial shipyard in Scotland? What of the jobs and the skills that shop stewards like Alex and John have spent their lives fighting for? What of Inverclyde and all of the families that depend on these jobs?

If the Scottish Government does not make the decision to directly award the seven small vessels that are due to be put out to tender directly to Ferguson’s then they should be under no illusion that it will be the political choice of the Scottish Government to see the gates of the Ferguson’s shipyard closed for good. I’m not willing to accept that, and I know the workers at the yard won’t either.

 

[First printed in The National 04/03/2024]

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