Will a blind eye to cheap foreign labour cost the Humber nautical jobs in offshore wind?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 29 Apr 2019

Fears are rife that young people on the Humber are being denied jobs in the offshore wind industry after ministers extended an open-door policy to cheap foreign labour.

The Home Office has opted to extend a waiver that allows offshore wind construction companies to bring in workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) without requiring a visa. The immigration loophole allows companies to pay these workers, who are often out at sea for 12 hours or more a day, less than the UK minimum wage, with some working for less than £4-an-hour - sailing from Grimsby.

Maritime union the RMT has called the year-long extension, taking the waiver up to April 2020, a “betrayal” of British seamen and a Conservative north east Lincolnshire MP has expressed concern that the move could stop youngsters in the region from embarking on careers in the green energy sector.

RenewableUK – the body representing Humber companies such as Ørsted and Siemens Gamesa – has distanced itself from the Whitehall decision, saying the waiver extension was not called for by the North Sea's big players.

The industry recently signed-off an offshore wind sector deal – an agreement Theresa May heralded during her visit to Grimsby last month as the UK looks to switch to green energy supplies – that promised to encourage locals into the workforce. It was the same base from where contractors, even without the non-EEA employee waiver, are still using immigration loopholes to pay foreign workers less than half the minimum wage.

The Edda Passat, a UK-flagged vessel but run by Norwegian company OSM, is being used to keep offshore workers out in the field at wind turbines operated and maintained by Ørsted, off the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire coast. According to a contract agreement seen by Humberbusiness.com contributor, Grimsby Telegraph, Polish staff are being paid to work as stewards on the ship for as little as £3.60 per hour – well below the £8.21 minimum wage for someone aged over 25 in the UK.

Other wind farms across the country are being built and serviced using cheap Filipino crew – a situation made possible due to the Home Office’s non-EEA waiver.

Theresa May praised the offshore wind sector deal during her visit to Grimsby last month.

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, 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.

“The betrayal of UK seafarers and exploitation of foreign seafarers continues under this failing Government.”

Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, said the extension of the immigration waiver could prevent young people training at Catch in his own constituency from fulfilling their potential.

“I have said on more than one occasion that I am concerned that too many of the most skilled jobs in the offshore wind sector are still going to an existing workforce brought in from Denmark, Germany and wherever else,” said Mr Vickers.

“I obviously want to see those opportunities opened up to our young people. We now have the training facilities in places like Catch and the Grimsby Institute and it is important we do not train up our young people and offer them openings that then do not materialise.”

The revelation comes as nautical training returns to Grimsby for the first time in 30 years, with a merchant navy cadetship from the Grimsby Institute-launched Humber Maritime College. 

Labour MP for Grimsby, Melanie Onn, said Danish-owned Ørsted – whose base on Grimsby Docks is the largest offshore operations and maintenance facility in the UK – had demonstrated a commitment to fostering local talent.

Ms Onn said: “While this extension could allow offshore wind farm companies to hire workers from outside the EEA, firms like Ørsted, that operate in this area, have been committed to providing education, training and apprenticeships to local residents.

“Their active participation in my Renewables Skills Fair demonstrate they are keen to continue to recruit hard-working and talented people from the Grimsby area.”

Industry body RenewableUK had previously backed extensions of the waiver, which has been in force since October 2016 and extended on a six-month basis since April 2018. However, executive director Emma Pinchbeck said the organisation “did not ask for this waiver, or any extension of it” and predicted companies seen to be exploiting staff would “likely lose business”.

She said: “As the sector deal announced last month makes clear, the offshore wind industry believes that we should be providing fairly-paid jobs. Companies who are looking to supply services to the offshore wind sector should know that we are strongly committed to responsible business practices, and any company not delivering on these values will likely lose business.”

Grimsby MP Melanie Onn said Ørsted was 'committed' to providing local training and job opportunities.

RenewableUK said, as agreed in the sector deal, a new body would be set-up to advertise offshore contracts to British companies.

International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA), the lobby group representing companies building the wind farms in the North Sea, has previously petitioned hard for the waiver to be continued.

A spokeswoman for the IMCA said: “The border control action taken in early 2017 took some in the offshore contractor community somewhat by surprise, but the resulting waiver extension by the Home Office was welcomed by giving industry some time to adjust to the regime. Two years on, we are not aware of any current issues.”

A Home Office spokesman said the “need” for the waiver would be “kept under review” over the next 12 months.

Read more: Race Bank plays leading role in offshore wind's record year for installation

He said: “The Home Office agreed to grant a concession as a temporary arrangement, outside of the immigration rules, to workers deemed to be essential to the construction and maintenance of wind farms within territorial waters. This temporary arrangement was put in place to give the wind farm industry the opportunity to take steps to regularise its arrangements for their employees.”

A publication from the University of Hull in 2017 forecasted that the number of maintenance and operation jobs in the sector would increase from around 6,000 this year to more than 16,000 in 2032.

At full capacity, Race Bank wind farm can power 400,000 homes and Hornsea wind farm off the east coast of Yorkshire, due to be the world’s largest wind farm when completed next year, will light up one million homes.​

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