The decision by the Coastguard Agency to award the contract to the Croatian-owned Brodospas Sun and Brodospas Moon appears to fly in the face of recommendations of Lord Donaldson's report into the Braer disaster, which cautioned against "polyglot crews''speaking different languages communicating with each other in time of emergency.
The Liberian-registered Braer ran aground two years ago next week, spilling 85,000 tonnes of oil on to the coast of the Shetlands. Lord Donaldson's 550-page report recommended the placing of emergency standby tugs to prevent pollution to help ships that suffered engine or steering failure. But it also warned of the dangers of ships run by "fly-by-night operators whose sole concern is for the fast buck at whatever price in terms of the safety and welfare of officers and crew".
Shipping unions, which have seen huge job losses in the past decade, have been incensed by the awarding of the contracts to the two Croatian vessels, which took up their positions before Christmas off Dover and north-west Scotland.
Brian Orrell, general secretary of Numast, the ships' officers' union, said the Croatian charter made a mockery of the Donaldson report.
"These ships are to be operated by the Coastguard Agency to provide cover in British waters and to be part of the British emergency services," he said. "The Government should spell out exactly how flag-of-convenience ships can be chartered on government work with foreign-speaking crews.''
United Towing of Hull won the coastguard contract against bids from the operators of 35 vessels flying 17 different flags. It is believed that only two British ships were involved in the bidding.
The tugs will be under the day-to-day operational control of the coastguard, but the agency said the crewing of the ships was not an issue. "The contract is with United Towing. The conditions of service are the business of that company rather than the coastguard," a spokesman said.
Union sources said the Croatians were likely to be paid about half the rate of UK seafarers. A British master on a similar vessel could expect to earn £25,000 a year and a seaman £10,000.
Eric Johnson, salvage manager of United Towing, said the tugs were of a high standard and had been working in the North Sea oil industry. A British master was on board as a liaison officer to work with the Croatian crew.
United Towing operates a number of tugs with British crews but Mr Johnson said there were none of the size necessary for the coastguard contract. "If any of our vessels were suitable we would use them. It's all come a bit too late for the British shipping industry."
Numast is unhappy that the Croation crew has been given permission to work in British waters. Since 1980 the number of British seafarers has fallen by 75 per cent to fewer than 20,000, many of whom work on foreign ships. The number of British ships has dropped from 1,614 in 1975 to 258.