A union has warned it is prepared to take legal action on behalf of thousands of volunteer coastguards unless they become paid employees of the UK government.
GMB Scotland said more than 2,800 rescue workers across the UK were “denied even the most basic rights of respect and recognition” by their employer, Her Majesty’s Coastguard, which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
These volunteers include more than 260 rescue officers based in the Islands and North of Scotland.
Prepared for legal action
The union is demanding that their status as workers is “properly recognised and the work they do is properly valued and recognised”. The organisation argued that it is “prepared to litigate to obtain justice for these brave men and women.
However, HM Coastguard insisted the “brave and selfless” volunteers have made clear they wish to remain voluntary.
Chief Coastguard Peter Mizen said he did “not recognise the situation being described by the GMB Scotland Union”.
“We are incredibly proud of our Coastguard Rescue Service,” he added. “Our coastguard rescue officers are all volunteers living and serving in their communities right across the UK. In the past, they have made it clear that they would prefer not to lose their voluntary status, in fact if they did, many would be unable to be part of the service.
“I regularly meet with coastguard rescue officers and I chair the Coastguard Rescue Service Consultation Group which is made of serving volunteer representatives from all over the UK. The general consensus is that they want the Coastguard Rescue Service to remain voluntary.”
Volunteer officers for the service are advised before they sign up that they can be called out at any time of the day or night, may have to work in hazardous situations for long hours and may have to carry out physically demanding tasks, for example carrying heavy equipment to rescue sites.
Coastguard rescue service volunteers are further told they are allowed to have another full-time job but that they must ask their employer if they can respond to emergencies during work hours before becoming volunteer.
The guidelines for potential volunteers add: “As a volunteer you will not be paid. You can claim a small amount for your time and expenses.”
‘Show respect for these unsung heroes’
Gary Smith, GMB Scotland secretary, said: “The HM Coastguard rescue workers risk their lives to help and save others but are treated worse than any other Government worker. Urgent action needs to be taken to show respect for these unsung heroes.
“The union is prepared to litigate for these workers, so they can be properly recognised as part of the HM Coastguard rescue workforce and to ensure their basic employment rights are respected.”
Mr Mizen said: “These brave and selfless individuals are on call all day every day and give of their time freely to respond in life and death situations as well as carrying out safety patrols on busy beaches and coastlines.
“We do recognise and honour our Coastguard Rescue Officers for their service. They regularly receive awards from long service to my own Chief Coastguard’s awards for individual and team bravery, We also regularly nominate members of the service for the Queen’s Honours List.”
The MCA is responsible for maritime search and rescue and maritime safety standards for the whole of the UK. It has coastguard operations centres in Aberdeen, Stornoway and Shetland, marine offices in Aberdeen and Glasgow and search and rescue helicopter bases in Prestwick, Inverness, Stornoway and Sumburgh.