SAYS MACASKILL IN CHALLENGE TO UK GOVERNMENT
Speaking today (Tuesday) in a Westminster Hall Debate at 4.00 pm in which he will lead on “immigration rules affecting offshore workers” Kenny MacAskill MP will argue that workers in the offshore wind sector should not face exploitation from unscrupulous employers. This has included the practice of sacking UK workers and bringing in workers from abroad, who according to the RMT trade union, are often on lower wages and worse conditions.
Speaking prior to the debate Mr MacAskill MP said:
“There is a renewable energy bounty but the question is will it benefit our workers? This isn’t anti-immigration but anti worker exploitation. We cannot have Scottish and UK seafarers and other workers supplanted by foreign labour working for below the minimum wage and on terms and conditions that are unacceptable either on land or in the oil and gas sector. We’ve seen P and O and recently experienced Nearte n a Gaoithe in the Firth of Forth where UK workers were replaced by low paid migrant labour. It’s not stop the boats its save our ships, seafarers and offshore workers.”
In his speech Kenny MacAskill MP will state:
“The Saudi Arabia of Wind” was how Boris Johnson described the potential of the offshore wind sector. Perhaps one of his few boasts with which I agreed.
One new offshore windfarm alone, Berwick Bank, in the Firth of Forth off my constituency in East Lothian will provide enough electricity to power more households than Scotland possesses. Yet in Energy Rich Scotland folk find themselves Fuel Poor. That, though, is a separate debate.
For the opportunities are much more than simply lower power costs for our people. They must encompass work for individuals and indeed communities, especially where old industries have gone or are being scaled down.
This should be a renewable energy revolution creating new types of work and jobs for young people, as well as retraining those in sectors such as fossil fuels where a transition is as necessary for our planet, as for our country. A Just Transition has been promised and it must be more than a just a glib phrase.
There are almost 50,000 offshore oil and gas workers in the UK. As their work ceases as it will, with only the pace of it subject to debate, then there’s a duty to provide for them. They have given so much in recent years, often in very trying and dangerous circumstances.
Of course, it’s not just offshore wind but in other opportunities now or that will arise whether in carbon capture and storage or hydrogen.
There are of course skills gaps now and no doubt in future years and it’s right that there should be an immigration and visa system to provide for them. Our economy and our environment demand no less.
This is therefore not anti-immigration. Instead, it is instead anti-worker exploitation.
For what must not be allowed to happen is for exploitative employers to be allowed to undermine UK employment laws and import low paid migrant labour as a matter of course, and on terms and conditions unacceptable on the UK mainland or even in the oil and gas sector.
That would be an abuse of desperate people and a shameful sell out of the rights of our own workers. It’s not alarmist to warn of the dangers. We’ve already seen the hollowing out of the UK merchant marine sector over recent years.
85% of seafarers in the UK shipping industry are non-UK nationals. More recently we’ve seen the abomination of the P and O scandal. A disgrace acknowledged by this Government. This isn’t stop the boats but save the Scottish and UK seafarers and those classified in that category.
For it has also already been happening in the offshore sector. Next to the Berwick Bank offshore wind field in the Firth of Forth lies the Neart na Gaoithe field.
But compounding the insult of turbines not being constructed locally was the injury to Scottish and UK seafarers who were laid off and replaced by cheap South Asian labour. Many had moved to work there, like my constituent, from oil and gas, seeing it as an opportunity to be closer to home.
There’ a grave risk that what happened in Neart na Gaoithe will be replicated elsewhere. UK seafarers and other offshore wind sector workers being supplanted by foreign labour.
That’s not essential skills which can only be obtained on a global basis and are required to for development and operation. Instead, it’s foreign labour exploited and working for rates of pay and on terms and conditions of employment which would be unacceptable on the UK mainland or indeed in the oil and gas
The Neart Na Gaoithe debacle came about as a result of the extension of the offshore workers exemption which was initially the subject matter of this debate. That loophole has thankfully since been ended. Though too late to provide any satisfaction for those who lost their jobs as a result.
It’s interesting to note though that RenewableUK wrote to the then Immigration Minister Kevin Foster in August 2021 suggesting ending the waiver for migrant labour in the sector. They also stated.
“UK workers are losing out on contracts to construct UK offshore wind farms to workers from as far afield as Asia, where regulations are less robust, thus creating an unlevel playing field for British firms.”
The letter went on to narrate how UK jobs were lost as the results of a sub-contractor. This shows that immigration restrictions aren’t damaging to the interests of responsible UK employers or indeed any other nations responsible employers, only to unscrupulous ones from anywhere. That warning was sadly ignored.
Refusal to disclose the number of jobs in construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms filled by migrant labour under the initial concession compounded that problem.
The 2017 Offshore Wind Workers Concession 2017 has been replaced by the Immigration (Offshore worker Notification and Exception from Control (Amendment) Regulations 2023.
These regulations themselves though leave a gap. For it’s one thing that foreign seafarers simply passing through UK waters aren’t covered. That’s understandable and appropriate.
However, foreign seafarers “passing through UK waters from non-UK waters to a place in the UK or vice versa” leaves open the opportunity for exploitation in the sector. Will the Minister undertake to address that loophole?
Moreover, as well as the numbers employed in the sector growing, the nature of the work will also develop and change. New technology such as Floating Offshore Wind Turbines allowing for expansion far beyond the limits of territorial waters.
Ships and support vessels will be operating further out at sea. Rather than servicing them from onshore ports, there will be flotels, offshore living platforms, and ships moored nearby for workers to live and work on.
The expansion beyond UK territorial waters, that’s the 12-mile limit that applies from the coastal shore will, also bring issues that need addressed. The issue is less serious within territorial waters though significant risks still apply. Let me explain.
Even with the ending of the offshore workers extension it’s not difficult for employers to recruit cheaper foreign labour. It’s already happening with foreign labour in the UK on visas living onshore when not working offshore.
But most worrying is the potential exploitation in the sector outwith territorial waters where many of these new windfarms will be located. Beyond the 12-mile limit yet still within the 100-mile UK exclusive economic zone.
Some working there will be seafarers, others though will have other skills but may be operating on ships or vessels for the sector. As things currently stand, they may find themselves in law, classified as seafarers or find themselves considered to operating under international maritime laws.
We already know that issues exist with health and safety legislation as the recent Valaris 121 tragedy confirmed. When a ship or platform isn’t attached to a turbine then it’s not UK Health and Safety laws that apply but international maritime law.
That absurdity has seen the loss of the life of a UK seafarer in an accident only 100 miles from Aberdeen under the jurisdiction of Liberia, on the west coast of Africa. That’s not just wrong, it’s perverse. Hopefully, coming discussions will address that.
But as with health and safety, so with employment legislation where the National Minimum Wage minimum wage doesn’t apply for those operating outwith territorial waters, yet still doing so within the UK Exclusive Economic Zone.
Now some responsible employers even apply the Living Wage across their supply chain, though monitoring and enforcement can be problematic. Surely though, employment legislation which applies in the UK should extend to this sector. After all steps were rightly taken to extend such protections to the oil and gas sector.
But as well as ensuring existing UK workers’ rights are protected in the new sector, there requires to be action on the immigration laws applying in the sector.
Recently published government guidance to immigration staff on incoming labour to the UK only refers to “continental shelf workers”. As with the health and safety situation there’s a failure to provide for the new offshore wind sector.
The definition of continental shelf worker comes from the Petroleum Act 1998 and relates to those operating in the oil and gas sector. To be fair, when that legislation was written the technology for offshore wind, let alone floating offshore wind, hadn’t even been thought of.
As a result, there’s no guidance applying for immigration officials when labours recruited for the offshore wind sector. That appears to be an oversight, even if there’s understandable reason for the failure.
However, the Energy Acy 2004 section 87 applies civil law to renewable energy installations. That specifically includes those outwith the 12 mile territorial limit and within the Exclusive Economic Zone.
That would no doubt be done to protect the interests of the corporations involved in the offshore sector. They require to be able to litigate for damages, enforce contracts and preserve their proprietorial and economic rights.
I accept that recourse to UK courts and the imposition of UK laws is sensible and required. The rule of law is fundamental for commerce and trade.
But the rule of law is equally needed in civil society and for our citizens, as much as our corporations. Extending coverage of existing laws and providing recourse to courts should therefore apply to workers’ rights and safety, as it is does for economic development and corporate profits. Rights that applied in the oil and gas sector must also be replicated in the offshore wind sector. Similarly, agreements between trade union and employers should also apply.
The danger is that unscrupulous employers to maximise profits will seek to import foreign labour. Working on terms and conditions that we wouldn’t tolerate as a country, either on our land or in the oil and gas sector. Yet those working on ships or based on flotels or other vessels in the Exclusive Economic Zone will be denied those rights.
As things stand employers won’t even have to go through the relatively minor hoops and hurdles that apply for migrants working within the territorial limit.
As I said at the outset this is not anti-immigration. This is anti-worker exploitation. Protecting those entitled to a Just Transition and others simply seeking a start in the natural bounty that’s off our shores. Also though protecting workers from abroad so desperate for work that they’re prepared to accept terms and conditions of employment we already consider unacceptable on land and in other sectors.
We must ensure that what happened in Neart na Gaoithe or even worse at P and O aren’t repeated.
This is about the protection of workers in our growing offshore wind sector. Whether they are from this country or from abroad but who are working here.
There’s ample opportunity for both because even providing employment for all those current oil and gas workers, as well as creating new jobs for others of all ages, there will still be a need to bring in immigrants to work.
But it should be where skills are missing, or labour is just not here to be found. It should be about economic necessity not the circumvention of hard won and vital individual and collective rights. It’s equally about the protection of responsible employers from those that are unscrupulous.
The rights and laws we have onshore and which have operated in the oil and gas sector must be extended to the offshore sector within and without territorial waters.
Will the Minister ensure that UK Immigration rules applying to the Offshore Sector ensure the protection of UK workers by basing it on specific need where skill shortages have been identified?
Moreover, that they are temporary regulations subject to oversight and transparency?
And finally, will the Minister require employers of migrant labour to adhere to UK employment laws and the national minimum wage?