Unions are warning the rapid and often “chaotic” growth of Australia’s renewable energy industry has led to exploitative work practices at some clean energy sites and are demanding industry and government secure better employment conditions.
Some renewable energy sites, including solar farms in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, have relied heavily on the use of unqualified and unlicensed workers, including backpackers on temporary work visas, according to Sharing the Benefits, a new report from the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
The ACTU, which backs national action to reduce climate emissions, says the report shines a light on parts of the renewable energy industry where workers get scant training and still face persistent issues with job security and employment conditions.
“We've seen exploitation, seen workers underpaid and seen companies collapse with none of their entitlements paid, so we’re concerned to make sure jobs that are being created are secure ones with good pay and conditions,” says ACTU president Michele O’Neil.
“Many of these new jobs lack the security and conditions of the jobs at fossil fuel power stations and mines."
Political arguments over climate change have seen the renewable industry subject to chaotic policy changes, and the number of renewable energy projects installed each year has fluctuated wildly.
But despite this, the industry has become a major jobs generator, employing at least 27,000 people currently, and this could grow to 45,000 jobs by 2035, according to research from the Clean Energy Council.
Australians unions support government backing for these projects but they should lock in requirements that companies provide quality jobs with fair pay and conditions, Ms O’Neil said.
The clean energy industry in Australia is undergoing significant growth, with strong state governments support for massive “renewable energy zones”, where suitable regions will be equipped with large-scale wind and solar projects.
But because this power generation needs to be competitive with existing fossil fuel assets - many of which were built with public funds decades ago - developers sometimes turn a profit by locking in the lowest possible construction and wages costs.
Tony, a qualified electrician and member of the Electrical Trades Union, who does not wish to use his surname for fear it could affect future employment prospects, has worked on solar farms, predominantly in Victoria and some in NSW, since 2018. Some of the dangerous workplace practices he has witnessed are “terrifying”, he said.
Casual staff are often brought in through labour hire companies, including backpackers, and some people he worked alongside didn’t have the additional training needed to work in the high-voltage setting of a solar farm.
Tony said he has witnessed staff fail to check if electricity isolation procedures are in place and get an “arc flash”, a type of electrical explosion that can be fatal.
He reported these incidents. “It petrifies me. I hate to say this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fatality at some stage."
There are some positive examples of well-paid, secure and highly-skilled renewables jobs, the report found. Twenty years ago, Keppel Prince began manufacturing wind turbine towers in Portland and now employs 350 staff in well-paid, secure and highly-skilled jobs.
Clean energy council chief executive Kane Thornton said the report exposes practices that needed to be stamped out as the industry matures and evolves.
ACTU President Michele O’Neil Credit:
“There’s no doubt there have been some challenges for the sector, and some of that has been because the policy has created boom-and-bust scenarios,” Mr Thornton said. “The Victorian budget gave a set of long-term commitments and stability to the industry, and this creates better outcomes for companies and their workforce.”
The ACTU is calling for enterprise agreements at all large-scale renewable projects as well as transparency about the numbers of jobs in the industry and employment conditions. It also says first nations people should be involved in project planning and design to ensure benefits also flow to them.
The Age has contacted the Victorian Government for comment.
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