Solar Scandal

Unsafe UGL pocketed state subsidies by exploiting French Backpackers.

ETU Organiser Troy Knight and OHS Officer Kris Gretgrix paid an unannounced visit to a solar farm construction site at Bannerton, Northern Victoria, in June. They exposed a health and safety nightmare – along with UGL’s major misuse of public funds at the expense of local electricians.
Foreign-owned UGL is constructing the 
110MW solar park and has, in turn, contracted labour hire company WorkPac to recruit and train workers there.

The union investigated what was going on at Bannerton after workers blew the whistle on serious safety concerns at the site. During their visit, Troy and Kris found a number of potentially fatal exposed electrical cables. The site was immediately shut down and workers sent home. 

Equally as concerning, union investigations found the company using non-licensed workers from France, most of whom were on backpacker visas. The union advised Energy Safe Victoria to sanction UGL and their contractors for using non-licensed electricians in violation of Section 38 of the Victorian Electrical Safety Act (1998).

Cleaning up the use of non-local workers turned out to be a larger task.

The ETU warned UGL and their contactors that the union reserved the right to pursue legal avenues to make sure that only licensed electricians undertake the electrical work at Bannerton. We told them that we will pursue the strict enforcement of penalties for any further breaches. We also invited UGL to negotiate an EBA for this site, and any future large-scale solar installations.

ETU Secretary, Troy Gray, says green jobs should be good jobs.

“When Daniel Andrews announced 
the winners to build the two new
large-scale solar projects last year, 
he promised that their construction would generate hundreds of jobs in regional Victoria.”
“Creating jobs and skills in the renewable sector was a necessary and laudable goal, but UGL have poisoned the well by ripping off the local community and exploiting overseas workers.”

He says we have to make sure contracts are water-tight.
“If you get a dollar from the Victorian taxpayer – you employ 100% locals. That’s the way it should be. How many millions in taxpayer subsidies will be spent on foreign backpackers before local workers even get a look in?” 
says Troy.

UGL is the Spanish-owned company who has pushed out 230 Esso gas maintenance workers for over a year at Longford, on the other side of the state. UGL has replaced the local workforce there with dozens of interstate workers.

Despite their repeated industrial wrongdoing, UGL and parent company CIMIC continue to pick up lucrative government contracts, most recently for the Westgate tunnel and Metro projects.

Following the scandal, the ETU called on Energy Minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, to conduct a state-wide audit of employment practices by companies taking state government money for solar projects.

In letters to the Minister, the union warned that contractors and labour hire agencies are systematically failing to plan to comply with energy safety regulations. Organiser, Troy Knight, says that the use of unskilled and inexperienced workers has frightening parallels to the Rudd Government’s disastrous ‘pink batts’ scheme, which killed a number of workers.

Meanwhile in Queensland

The Queensland branch of the ETU has called for immediate Government intervention into the state’s solar farms after finding Filipino workers were being paid just $30 per day on 400 class visas to do work on a Townsville solar farm.

The explosive revelations surfaced during routine union enquiries into the wages and conditions of two Filipino workers employed under Visa class 400 by Schneider Australia on the Ross River Solar Farm in North Queensland.

Queensland Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, Peter Ong said this latest report was further evidence that the solar industry was riddled with exploitation.

“First we had unlicensed backpackers doing electrical work on low rates of pay, now we have basically slave labour where overseas workers are being paid subsistence wages and going hungry, it’s a disgraceful breach of immigration, building and employment law,” he said.

Companies on notice

In the wake of these revelations, solar companies across the country are on notice to clean up their employment practices.

These jobs should be good jobs. They should be for local workers, with union conditions and opportunities for apprentices.

The ETU will be watching closely to make sure that they do. If they don’t, the Andrews Government better come down on them like a ton of bricks.