Unions allege ‘deplorable’ treatment of migrant workers at waste facility

Trade unions are calling on SITA Sembcorp UK (SSUK) to review its employment practices, following a visit to its Wilton 11 energy-from-waste development site that found foreign workers being ‘exploited’ by ‘appalling treatment’.

SSUK has responded today (25 August), promising ‘robust action’ should it find any substance to allegations about worker welfare or site safety being compromised.

Representatives of trade unions GMB, Unite and UCATT visited the site of the £250 million energy-from-waste development on 17 August with independent ‘Croatian, Punjabi and Polish’ interpreters.

Artist's impression of SITA Sembcorp's Wilton 11 EfW plant.
GMB has since alleged that migrant workers at the Wilton 11 energy-from-waste development in Teesside are being treated ‘deplorably’, with some being paid less than half the nationally-agreed rates for UK construction workers.

The two other trade unions, Unite and UCATT, have joined GMB in calling on the SSUK to intervene and prevent contractors from using ‘exploitative employment practices’.

SSUK, the managing consortium comprising Sembcorp, SUEZ and the Itochu Corporation, has called the allegations ‘disingenuous’ and ‘erroneous’, pointing out that they do not control the employment of workers, but has vowed to investigate them fully.

Agreed rates for construction workers in UK

The National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) and the Construction Industry Joint Council (CIJC) Working Rule Agreement both set agreed rates for construction workers working in the UK. However, GMB reportedly found migrant workers being paid just above the minimum wage, employed through ‘umbrella companies’.

GMB says that by using umbrella companies to represent agency workers, workers are paid after PAYE income tax, employee and employer National Insurance contributions and the umbrella company’s fee are deducted. GMB says ‘payslips are often so complex that workers [say] they do not understand how their pay is being calculated’.

Following the visit, Unite Regional Officer Steve Cason said that ‘coach and horses is being ridden through the agreements’, which were established to maintain standards and ensure workers are paid fairly.

This is the latest in a series of complaints from GMB, who have repeatedly claimed that European workers are being paid below the rates, meaning that local workers have ‘no chance’ of getting up to three-quarters of the jobs created by the development, which when completed in 2016 will process over 430,000 tonnes of residual waste on behalf of the Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority as part of a 30-year, £1.2 billion contract.

Unions describe ‘appalling treatment of migrant labour’

Michael Blench, GMB Regional Officer, said: "After visiting the SITA (sic) site I was appalled to find the treatment of the migrant labour.

“The mechanical fitters are paid €9-10 (£6.50-£7.30) an hour. The highest paid were a couple of welders who were paid €13 (£9.50) an hour.

“There was no holiday pay for anybody spoken to. After three months some were paid leave to return home and some not. There was multiple and excessive use of umbrella companies with everyone on different rates.

“SITA (sic) are treating these workers deplorably and not paying anywhere near our national rates, less than half in most cases.

“As usual the small amount of local labour on site has been paid off and more migrant labour is being brought in, with little attention paid to their safety or their welfare.

“SITA (sic) is a prime example of a company abusing local communities making excessive extortionate profit on the back of their employees’ misery.”

“[The managing company] has again ignored our pleas for national rates to apply and whitewashed any investigations into our findings. It is now for the client and the political parties on Merseyside to conduct a full audit and stop exploitation on site.”

Denis Doody, Regional Secretary for construction union UCATT's Northern Region, added: "The level of exploitation being suffered by workers at Wilton is disgusting. The employers undertaking this exploitation have no shame or morality.

“They are just interested in making large profits as quickly as possible.

"SITA and Sembcorp can no longer turn a blind eye and must intervene to end this workplace misery."

‘Disingenuous’ allegations will be robustly investigated by managing consortium

In a statement released this morning (25 August), SSUK said it will respond to the claims and has launched an investigation. It reads: “This union visit [on 17 August] was the second such formal access that UNITE, GMB and UCATT have had to workers on this project. The individual workers employed on site are not employees of SSUK, SITA or Sembcorp but are employed by CNIM Clugston and their subcontractors. The press release issued by the GMB makes reference to SITA employees – this is erroneous.

“Of a workforce of approximately 750 people on site, employed by more than 30 different sub-contractors working for CNIM Clugston, we understand that a dozen or so individuals chose to meet with union representatives on 17 August.

“Following these meetings, the unions relayed a number of issues arising from them and asked SSUK to investigate with CNIM Clugston. Conversely, following the meetings, the unions agreed to drop a number of previous allegations which had been shown to be baseless.

“SSUK has subsequently written to CNIM Clugston demanding a detailed response to these issues and, more importantly, evidence to either substantiate or refute each individual claim.

“A time frame of seven working days to respond was committed to with the unions, in order to allow both SSUK and CNIM Clugston to investigate these matters properly. That time frame has not yet lapsed.

“SSUK does not agree that workers employed on site are “exploited” or being treated “deplorably” and CNIM Clugston has consistently led us to believe that all workers on site are paid a rate equivalent to the unions’ respective voluntary working rate agreements – which are at the centre of this debate.

“If any of the allegations are proven to be true, SSUK will take robust action against CNIM Clugston to ensure that any anomalies or problems are immediately rectified.

“Throughout this long-running dispute, workers employed on site have not been involved in union-supported protest action, nor have they complained to SSUK or CNIM Clugston about their pay or terms of employment despite every opportunity to do so and, indeed, pressure to do so by the unions and activists.

“We do, however, acknowledge the allegations made by the trade unions as a result of meeting with some of the workforce and we have launched a full and proper investigation into these claims. 

“From prior investigations, we are however, clear on our position in respect of the legality of all employment practices on site and that, while umbrella contracts are used in some instances, these comply with all HMRC guidance and applicable UK laws.

“Any suggestion that workers welfare or safety on site is compromised, or is in any way linked to the union’s complaints about their working rate agreement, is completely disingenuous. 

“SSUK is placing substantial pressure on CNIM Clugston to respond to these allegations and we will respond to the unions, and the wider project stakeholders, in due course and with a factual basis.”

Find out more about the Wilton 11 project.

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