Solar farm workers walk off site amid dispute

Posted October 05, 2018 06:35:20

Most construction at Australia’s largest photovoltaic (PV) solar farm near Port Augusta has stopped following a disagreement between unions and a subcontractor.

Key points:

  • Workers walk off job at Bungala solar farm near Port Augusta over labour hire dispute
  • CFMEU has concerns about drug use and poor conditions on site
  • 50 of 350 employees failed drug testing

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) organiser Ryan Ernesti told the ABC it had pulled almost every worker off of the 275-megawatt Bungala Solar Power Project farm site near Port Augusta on Tuesday morning.

He said the union made the call because Adelaide-based electrical subcontractor Keightley Electrical Services did not have a labour-hire provider when the workers arrived.

“They all showed up to work and they were told there’s a new labour-hire provider from Friday last week,” Mr Ernesti said.

“… You’ve got people turning up and they can’t earn a crust.”

Until Friday, staff had been employed by Keightley through labour-hire company Manpower.

Mr Ernesti said he was worried workers would not get paid for Tuesday and Wednesday, when they downed tools.

“It came to a loggerhead a week ago when [Keightley’s] current labour-hire company, which was Manpower, pulled their contract,” Mr Ernesti said.

“The people went to work for the last two days and found out [there was] no labour-hire contractor on site.”

Keightley Electrical Services general manager Tejas Patel said the company switched to union-connected labour-hire company MC Labour last week, but it was unable to supply the 20 workers needed.

He said the company would now employ staff directly, and workers would be paid for the days they were off work.

Mr Patel said the company made the move after Manpower pulled out of its contract.

“The CEPU (Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union) were forcing too much onto Manpower,” he said.

Head contractor Green Light Contractors did not return a request for comment.

Union raises concerns about worker drug use

Mr Ernesti said the union had heard cases of workers being found with drugs in their system during a mandatory on-site drug test.

“There was an arrest at the solar farm, and then it was followed by a drug test within seven days of that arrest and it was confirmed to us that 50 employees failed,” he said.

“Of a site of 350, that’s a fair chunk of your workforce.”

In a statement to the ABC, Enel Green Power said it had a zero-tolerance stance toward drug use, which applied to all workers.

It firmly rejected allegations regarding workplace conditions.

A former employee at the Bungala site — who did not want to be named — said conditions on the site were difficult, particularly during dust storms — which are common in the South Australian desert.

“I was quite staggered that they could keep a site open in such terrible conditions,” he said.

“The winds and the sand at ground level was just phenomenal.

“And the guys that worked in the trenches, these trenches are waist deep, so they would have been right in the blasting line of ground dust.

“That would have been tremendously uncomfortable.”

Remote sites difficult to monitor

Director of the Labour Market Research Centre at the University of Canberra, Professor John Lewis, said renewable energy construction sites could be prone to this sort of behaviour because of their remoteness.

“For them to be regulated, it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be an expensive job,” he said.

“That’s just a problem which doesn’t occur with city building sites, where regular monitoring is much easier.”

Port Augusta Mayor Sam Johnson said recent allegations surrounding the Bungala solar project should not dampen opinions of it.

“Noting the size of it, it still being Australia’s largest solar PV farm,” Mayor Johnson said.

“So, it’s a great project we should still be celebrating, but it does have its problems, obviously.

“And I have met with the CFMEU, just to go through some of the issues that they have certainly raised and then how we next address them.”

Work on the site started in 2017 after Origin agreed to buy all of the renewable power generated by the plant, which is being developed by Enel Green Power and the Dutch Infrastructure Fund.

The project will occupy 800 hectares of land owned by the Bungala Aboriginal Corporation about 10 kilometres north-east of Port Augusta.

It is due to open in November.

Topics: alternative-energy, solar-energy, unions, occupational-health-and-safety, port-augusta-5700, sa, ridgehaven-5097