Ten thousand. This was the number of people employed in the UK’s offshore wind sector at the end of 2017. It is set to increase more than threefold to 36,000 by 2032 as the industry prepares to reach 35GW of installed capacity, according to Aura Wind Energy.
As a result, firms in the sector are set to come under more pressure to find enough workers to keep up with the sustained growth. That is in addition to the pressure caused by a mixture of Brexit and the fact that, according to data on Tuesday, UK employment is the highest ever.
These pressures could pose a threat to workers in the UK offshore wind sector and to the reputation of the industry too. One story from last year is an instructive example.
In October, the Guardian reported on irregularities with some workers hired to build the 588MW Beatrice project in waters off Scotland. The newspaper reported that a small number of workers hired to build Beatrice included migrants without proper immigration documents and paid less than the UK minimum wage.
The project has been developed by a group including SSE (40%), Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (35%), and Red Rock Power (25%), but there is no indication that the partners were involved with, knew about or approved of the decision related to those workers. That decision was carried out by one of its sub-contractors.
An SSE spokeswoman in that story said: “SSE, and its project partners, take any potential breach of UK immigration law by its contractors extremely seriously and each of [Beatrice’s] suppliers is contractually required to fully comply with UK law.”
She added that the partners “took legal action as soon as the issue came to light”.
However, this does highlight a potential issue of which investors, developers and others must be aware as UK offshore wind grows. We spoke with the International Transport Workers' Federation’s coordinator for the UK and Ireland, Ken Fleming.
He explained that the ITF mainly focuses on the fishing industry, where a number of workers suffer “some of the worst treatment” imaginable from their employers, and it is now an issue for wind: “It seems that a number of fishing vessels that aren’t fishing actively as well as farmer fishing vessels have got themselves involved in wind farm operations too,” he said.
Fleming said he was aware of several workers from Africa, with no experience on offshore wind, that were now working on schemes and being paid less than the UK minimum wage. Historically, lower-skilled workers from non-European Economic Area countries were not allowed to work on vessels that operate in UK’s territorial waters.
That changed two years ago. In 2017, the UK’s Home Office introduced a temporary change to immigration rules to allow employment of non-EEA citizens on vessels involved in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms in UK waters. The concession was extended in October 2017 and is set to expire this April.
While the Home Office told the Guardian that the concession was created to enable firms to hire workers “deemed to be essential to the construction and maintenance of wind farms within territorial waters”, it has been unclear who should apply the rules.
As Fleming said: “Who’s boarding the vessels? Who’s examining the contract of the workers? Who’s making sure that people are treated correctly? There is a complete lack of control on the vessels that have been used, where these people come from and why they have been hired.” He added that firms should also be active in preventing exploitation. That is right.
In addition, from an investor and industry perspective, there is a risk this could hurt arguments by developers about the benefits that the construction of offshore wind farms produce for local economies. Offshore wind companies may be under pressure to reduce costs and build more projects, but it becomes dangerous for the sector if that is at the expense of workers' rights.
The UK needs offshore wind to be a post-Brexit success story, not mired in reports that undermine the arguments about the sector’s local benefits. A warning yesterday from the Gangmasters' and Labour Abuse Authority in the Financial Times covered similar ground.
British workers alone may not be able to sustain the growth of UK offshore wind, and we’re definitely not against the employment of skilled and accredited overseas workers – but fair treatment is key. Offshore wind’s reputation is a corner that cannot be cut.
The Irish Government has unveiled changes to its second offshore wind tender that the industry said have created “massive levels of uncertainty”. We look at what this means for the up-to-80GW of offshore wind projects in development in Irish waters.