Solar industry hiring backpacker workforce, insider reveals

Updated September 26, 2018 12:54:43

Despite the Queensland Government promising a jobs boom from the construction of dozens of solar projects across the state an industry insider says companies are turning to cheap labour over local workers.

Key points:

  • Thirty breach notices issued by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and the Electrical Safety Office
  • Solar industry insider says backpackers are hired over local job seekers because of “drug and alcohol problems”
  • Construction companies say the industry has created more than 4,700 jobs

One solar industry insider told ABC News their company was actively hiring backpackers because of “drug and alcohol problems” with local job seekers.

The construction source — who did not want to be named out of fear of souring relations with government — said there were significant issues with the labour force.

“You have a huge pipeline of solar parks all over Australia,” he said.

“All of them will be delayed … because when you don’t have the proper labour, you can’t deliver on time.

“Someone in this country must stand up and tell the truth. So if you won’t get the locals, what other options do you have?

“There is an increase in costs to fly in and fly out workers, so what do you do?”

But the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has slammed the practice.

ETU state organiser Dan McGaw said he is regularly lodging complaints with the Office of Industrial Relations over concerns raised during site inspections.

“We’re seeing a lot of backpackers doing unlicensed electrical work so companies are cutting corners,” he said.

“I was on a site recently … I said to the construction manager on site — I asked who had done the electrical work.

“He admitted to me that no electrician had ever been on site — that all the work had been done by labourers and those labourers had been backpackers.

“We can’t afford to have unskilled foreign workers doing unlicensed work.”

So far this year there are more than 20 solar farms either recently completed or currently under construction in Queensland with several more projects in the pipeline.

The industry has helped create more than 4,700 jobs — according to responses from the construction companies involved.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has delivered $51.4 million of grant funding across six Queensland solar farms, while the Queensland Government is in talks with solar businesses to offer set future energy prices as an incentive.

Premier calls for investigation

After questions from ABC News in June, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she would get her director-general to investigate claims about the labour market across the green energy sector.

In the last fortnight officers from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and the Electrical Safety Office began a blitz of inspections across regional solar farms.

A total of 30 notices have so far been issued to a number of companies — including 23 breaches of the Work Health and Safety Act and seven breaches of the Electrical Safety Act.

These have included notices for unlicensed electrical work, failing to provide personal protective equipment for workers and failing to implement safe systems.

Industrial Minister Grace Grace said her department was working to develop a new Code of Practice to be released at the end of the year.

“With the construction of solar and wind farms expanding throughout Queensland, we must ensure electrical safety is paramount,” she said.

“While there is a robust system in place to ensure the highest levels of safety, we are far from complacent and we want to ensure world’s best practice in this area.

“Following the completion of the solar code, a similar process will be undertaken to develop a separate code of practice for wind farms,” she said.

Under the watch of Border Force

Australian Border Force has also led investigations across the industry but to date “has not confirmed any instances of illegal workers or worker exploitation”.

“The Australian Government is committed to ensuring that Australian workers have priority and that foreign workers are a supplement to, and not a substitute for, Australians,” an ABF spokesperson said.

“The Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa allows ‘backpackers’ to stay and holiday in Australia for up to 12 months, work in Australia for up to six months with each employer, study for up to four months and leave and re-enter Australia any number of times while the visa is valid.

“WHM visa holders can undertake any kind of work with any employer during their stay in Australia as long as they do not work more than six months with that employer.”

Solar farms completed or currently under construction in Queensland:

Construction company Project Region Capacity Owner Total workforce
Biosar Energy Childers Bundaberg 120MW Elliott 200
Biosar Energy Susan River Fraser Coast 100MW Elliott 300
Biosar Energy Oakey Solar Farm Stage 2 Toowoomba 70MW Canadian Solar 200
Downer Group Ross River Solar Farm Townville 148MW Palisade Unknown
Downer Group Clare Solar Farm Burdekin 100 MW FRV Unknown
Downer Group Sunshine coast Solar Farm Sunshine Coast 15MW Sunshine Coast City Council Unknown
Acciona Lilyvale Solar Farm Central Highlands 100MW Fotowatio Renewable Ventures Unknown
CIMIC Group & UGL Limited Collinsville Solar Project Whitsunday 42.5MW Ratch Australia 120 at peak
RCR Tomlinson Darling Downs Solar Farm Western Downs 110MW APA Group 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Daydream Solar Farm Whitsunday 180MW Edify Energy 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Hayman Solar Farm Whitsunday 60MW Edify Energy 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Longreach Solar Farm Longreach 15MW Canadian Solar 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Oakey Solar Farm Stage 1 Toowoomba 25MW Canadian Solar 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Sun Metals Solar Farm Stage 1 Townsville 124MW Sun metals Corp 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Emerald Solar Park Central Highlands 72MW Renewable Energy Systems 3,000 across eight projects
RCR Tomlinson Haughton Burdekin 500MW Pacific Hydro 3,000 across eight projects
Bouygues Construction Australia Hamilton Solar Farm Whitsunday 69MW Edify Energy 325
Tranex Whitsunday Solar Farm Whitsunday 69MW Edify Energy Approx. 60
Beon Energy Hughenden Solar Farm Flinders 20MW BayWa r.e 100
Windlab and Erus Energy Kennedy Energy Park Flinders 60MW Windlab Approx. 130 to 140
Yarranlea Yarranlea Solar Farm Toowoomba 121MW Risen Energy 200 proposed positions
Adani Rugby Run Solar Farm Stage 1 Isaac Region 65MW Adani Renewables 150 proposed jobs

Topics: alternative-energy, solar-energy, government-and-politics, unions, work, community-and-society, activism-and-lobbying, qld, brisbane-4000, australia

First posted September 26, 2018 05:47:18