Renewables generating a slave labour market

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Jeremy Cresswell
Opinion by Jeremy CresswellEmeritus editor, Energy

We’ve been here before, at least in the context of the North Sea oil and gas industry.

By that I mean the employment of virtual slave labour from outwith the EU on offshore support vessels mostly operating under flags of convenience.

It has been a recurring problem, and now it has infected offshore wind. Well it was bound to. And I’ve been waiting for it to happen.

It is alleged by the union RMT that some firms are paying seafarers on offshore wind-related boats as little as $2.34 per hour (£1.81).

That really is slave labour rates. It makes the UK’s “Gig Economy” seem generous by comparison.

And now the use of seamen, mainly from countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa, has in effect been officially sanctioned by government, at least for the next 12 months. Actually, it’s been going on longer than that.

As reported late last month, it seems that this nonsense has been going on for several years and that there have been several such waivers to immigration rules since 2016.
The Home Office talks about a temporary state of affairs to give the industry time to “regularise arrangements”.

That’s simply not good enough. The wind industry has had ample time to plan. It is taking the proverbial Michael and getting away with it.

With project lead times and vessel requirements known well in advance, such excuses simply do not wash. Every detail is minutely covered. I can assure you of that.

That almost all the construction and service vessels working in our waters on windfarms have nothing whatsoever to do with the UK is a key part of the problem.
They are owned and operated by foreign interests and frequently don’t even dock in a British port at any time. So this makes it really
easy for malpractice to be perpetrated.

What’s the Home Office going to do? Get Border Force to carry out spot-checks at sea using patrol boats? I think not.

We have the same broad state of affairs in the oil and gas industry where very few vessels fly the “red duster”. I am told that those with the ultimate responsibility to ensure fair play – the oil companies – simply turn a blind eye. Or at least some do.

So much for due diligence. So much for shared values. And it’s been going on for years; decades even.

The trade union RMT is right to condemn the Home Office’s waiver, right to say it is a betrayal of UK seafarers that will exclude them from jobs in what it called the “growing supply chain”.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The construction and installation of wind farms are where most jobs are created yet the Home Office has decided to issue another waiver, the fourth by our count, to allow wind energy companies to profit from importing cheap labour to build and maintain wind farms in UK waters for another year.”

There are various estimates as to how many jobs have been created by offshore wind. The current figure seems to be in the range 6-7,000.

Offshore wind is widely quoted as a success story for the UK. Well, yes it is, but only in one respect and that is the sheer number of turbines installed and generating electricity.
Every turbine generator – the bit that sits at the top of the towers is imported. Nearly every tower, transition piece and foundation unit is also imported.

Much of the associated power cable network is also based on imported materials.
Local content is miniscule. As mentioned already, hardly any vessel active in the UK offshore wind industry is British. And now it transpires that we cannot even ensure seafarers on a proportion of the vessels get fairly treated.

In short, it’s a mess. Unforgivable.

Someone has to get honest here, take the lead and fix the problem. That means the energy utilities and other companies that are investing in and operating the UK’s breezy green offshore future.

I have little doubt that some companies are on the ball, being diligent and ensuring fair play. But there are those who clearly aren’t. That’s why RMT has spoken out on behalf of the seafarers receiving a raw deal.

Big Wind must set its house in order and the Home Office must stop being so naive.

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