The Icelandic Seaman’s Association has issued a strongly worded statement in support of Iceland’s Coast Guard pilots, calling the government’s delay in negotiations “unacceptable and disgraceful,” Mbl.is reports. The Coast Guard pilots have been without a contract since December 31, 2019.
‘A hopeless position’
As Iceland’s Coast Guard pilots have police powers, they are legally prohibited from going on strike, which puts them in “a hopeless position” when it comes to contract bargaining, says Sonja Bjarnadóttir Backman, a lawyer with the Icelandic Airline Pilots’ Association (FÍA). Per a statement issued by FÍA in April, Coast Guard pilots’ “labour agreements have historically been linked to CLAs of comparable professions, for the longest time through a statutory link, or until 2006.”
That arrangement is now under “vigorou[s] attack” by the Ministry of Finance, however, which FÍA says is pushing “a clear demand for a new, original wage agreement without links to comparable professions. This will not only affect pilot benefits but will also greatly increase staff turnover among the Coast Guard’s pilots.”
With “hundreds of millions of ISK” spent on training each pilot, high turnover amongst the Coast Guard’s pilots is clearly costly to the state monetarily, but also has the associated cost of lost experience and knowledge among the highly trained professionals who oversee rescue operations at sea. “Increased staff turnover is therefore quick to more than offset the disconnection of wages from comparable professions,” continues the FÍA statement.
The FÍA also takes issue with the Ministry of Finance’s desire to abolish the pilot’s seniority list, which it says is “one of the cornerstones of safety culture in aviation around the world.”
“This arrangement has proved successful, as such lists ensure transparency, professionalism, and that pilots can report incidents without fear of punishment. The Ministry has presented no objective arguments to support its position, and in fact the pilots’ negotiation committee has perceived a lack of professional knowledge and understanding of the unique position of the aviation industry in the negotiations.”
(Read the FÍA’s full “Resolution from the Pilots of the Icelandic Coast Guard here, in English.)
“It’s happened that there’s no helicopter available when needed,” continues to the statement issued by the Seaman’s Association. Indeed, due to staff illness, there was no helicopter available when a serious traffic accident occurred in South Iceland this week. Since it was not possible to man the helicopter crew, the injured person had to be transported by ambulance – making the trip one and a half hours longer than it would have been by helicopter.
According to Ásgeir Erlendsson, communications officer of the Icelandic Coast Guard, for two thirds of the year, the Coast Guard has two crews on call, but for one third of the year, there is just a single crew on duty. In the past, illness or other staffing challenges have been solved by calling in staff who were off duty. That was, however, not possible on the day of the accident in question.
This staffing shortage was denounced by the Minister of Justice, who wants to increase the number of helicopter pilots. But despite the Seaman’s Association’s later claims, this incident was said to be unrelated to the pilots’ ongoing wage dispute.
‘Ambulances of the sea’
The Seaman’s Association statement, which was cosigned by the Association of Ship Captains, the Association of Engineers and Metalworkers, and the Grindavík Seaman and Engineer Association, also drew particular attention to the fact that with only one helicopter on duty, it is not possible to rescue distressed sailors who are more than 20 nautical miles from land.
“If ships are outside the 20 nautical mile-mark,” reads the statement, “they have to sail to meet a helicopter with their injured or ill. Minutes matter in these cases—let alone hours.”
The Seaman’s Association presses the government to ensure that there are always two helicopters, or “ambulances of the sea” available, and concluded by saying that having only one helicopter on duty could have grave consequences for Icelandic and foreign fishermen alike.