Unions protest alleged worker ‘exploitation’ on EfW developments in Kent and Yorkshire
Protests regarding the alleged ‘exploitation’ of construction staff at two major UK energy-from waste developments overseen by Danish companies took place yesterday (12 April) as unions petitioned the Danish government to investigate.
The protests were jointly organised by trade unions GMB and Unite, with GMB asserting that the companies in question – Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC) and Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, both funded by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, the investment arm of Pension Denmark – are paying workers up to 61 per cent below agreed industry rates, with some workers receiving minimum wage and covering their own travel and accommodation expenses.
The protest was held outside Ramsgate Road Discovery Park in Sandwich, Kent, where BWSC’s UK offices are based, while representatives presented a petition to the Danish embassy, calling for the Danish government to launch an investigation into the allegations.
The Kent project was first announced in 2016, with BWSC building a biomass power plant capable of generating enough power for 50,000 households. The plant is currently scheduled to open in summer 2018.
Work on Babcock & Wilcox Vølund’s plant in Rotherham, which will burn waste wood sourced and processed by Stobart Biomass Products as part of a multi-million pound, long term deal, started in 2015. Due to be operational this autumn, developers estimate the plant will generate around 41MW of electricity each year.
The demonstration was part of a series of protests organised by the two trade unions, with others scheduled to take place at energy from waste projects in Rotherham and Solihull. On Monday (10 April) a protest was held outside Pension Denmark’s UK offices.
The National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) gives a basic hourly rate of £16.97, with an hourly bonus of £2.37. According to GMB, the companies have refused to allow the unions access to the workforce and do not pay the hourly bonus, industry sick pay, enhanced holiday pay, travel and accommodation allowances and other benefits.
Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, it claims, has ‘clear corporate social responsibility policies which should apply to the organisations supply chains both domestically and abroad’ but which are apparently being ‘flouted’. The Danish government has policies in place as a result of the EU Posted Workers Directive, preventing the types of exploitation of workers that GMB has alleged.
Exploitation ‘cannot go unchallenged’
Phil Whitehurst, GMB National Officer for Construction, said: "These engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) management companies, funded primarily by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, have maintained they will not support any form of undercutting or exploitation by their supply chain.
"We have presented evidence to them highlighting exploitation and social dumping practices that, if carried out in Denmark, would carry a custodial sentence.
"We have endeavoured to negotiate with the construction companies responsible, but they refuse to sign up to national agreements in the UK, such as NAECI, which would put everyone on a level playing field.
"We will hand the ambassador a petition of around 5,000 signatures demanding the Danish government investigates from top to bottom the investment and construction regime that is causing so much misery in the UK construction industry."
Bernard McAulay, speaking on behalf of Unite, added: "Construction workers are angry that Danish companies are exploiting workers and undercutting pay rates, to boost their profits.
"This exploitation cannot be allowed to go unchallenged; it is vital that workers and the general public know what companies are trying to get away with on major projects and ensure their misdeeds are brought to account.”
BWSC committed to ‘high ethical standards’
Responding to the allegations, BWSC released a statement denying any wrong-doing and emphasising its commitment to ‘upholding high ethical standards’.
The statement reads: ‘Our commitments and expectation of suppliers are summarised in our Terms and Conditions for work on site. These requirements state BWSC’s policy to conduct its business in compliance with applicable laws and binding international conventions.
‘The Terms also require that a) all sub-contract work agreements contain specific provision that all skilled mechanical and electrical workers, irrespective of their nationality, are paid in full compliance with the appropriate rates of pay as set forth by NAECI, and b) that the all-inclusive rates paid by BWSC cover entitlements such as transport, travel and accommodation allowance.
‘BWSC has had a healthy and open dialogue with numerous UK trade union representatives from Unite and GMB over the recent years, while constructing projects in the UK, and any concerns put forward by the UK trade unions regarding rates of pay, worker welfare, health and safety, etc., have all been dealt with swiftly and it is our understanding that it has been to the satisfaction of the UK trade unions.’
A spokesperson for Babcock and Wilcox Vølund added: "We have held constructive talks with Unions at both a local and national level, and we believe good progress is being made. We would therefore call upon them to stop these disruptive protest actions, and instead direct energies to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.
"Once completed, our sites will deliver significant benefits to these local communities and the country as a whole with a conservative estimate of £40 million to the economy. We are part of a growing number of renewable energy projects across the UK, all of which generate clean and safe forms of power from renewable sources, and help to protect our environment."