A tale of two solar cities

Nicholas McCallum

The battle is on to fix licensing, labour and payment problems throughout the solar farm industry. 

Electrical workers are well aware of the bad news and horror stories coming out from solar farms across the country.

Insufficient space in crib rooms, inadequate protections for hot, dry and windy conditions, poor safety procedures: the list is long. And at the top is unlicensed workers doing electrical trades work.

In an industry where sub-par pay and conditions is the deplorable norm, finding a solar farm where the workers are happy and like their boss might seem like a fantasy to some. Yet there is such a place, and it’s setting the standard that the ETU and CEPU is fighting to see in place at all projects.

Tailem Bend sits about two hours’ drive southeast from Adelaide, not far from the Murray River.

Electrical workers at Tailem Bend, southeast of Adelaide.

As well as new racing circuit, the town is also home to a medium-scale solar farm that, according to the electrical workers constructing the site, is unlike most other solar farms under construction around South Australia and much of the country.

“The workers have been taken on as full time which is unusual in the solar industry,” said Paul Scudds, a construction organiser with the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union’s SA branch, during a visit to speak with members in late September.

In 2017 $9 billion poured into Australia’s renewables sector, making it seventh in the world for investment with large-scale energy projects, growing 222% on the previous year.

Despite the boom, too many bosses are ripping off workers any way they can.

“These workers might be on what looks like a decent wicket here [at Tailem Bend] but out at Bungala it’s a different story,” he said, referring to the troubled solar city in Port Augusta, the biggest photovoltaic (PV) project in the country. 

Soon after visiting Tailem Bend site, Paul said workers at the Bungala site were effectively locked out of the site, not knowing if they would be paid, or if they had ongoing employment.

Workers rally at the Bungala solar farm near Port Augusta after being locked out.

Manpower were the labour provider for the electrical contractor, after the electrical contractor had shopped around for a provider that would “low ball” and undercut wages and conditions.  

When the Manpower contracts came in, it was a bait-and-switch; the rates were lower and the conditions gutted.

“When the workers were given the contracts and they’re all told to sign over,” Paul said. “It’s basically put as ‘If you don’t agree, you don’t have a job.’”

But the Manpower agreement was torn up in late September, after the workers, with the assistance of the unions, started taking a stand over the payment problems.

An artists impression of what the Bungala project will look like when finished.

But the break of contract left workers over a barrel, Paul said.

“After the long weekend, everyone went to work but they had no employer – that’s why they were locked out of the site,” the construction organiser said.

They were caught up in a contractual dispute between the principle contractor and a dodgy subby, who has hidden behind using labour hire to get out of his responsibilities as an employer, trying to use contracts virtually hand written on the back of piece of A4 paper.

“We don’t know when the work will resume, or who the electrical contractor will be, but we do know workers won’t wait around for weeks not being paid,” Paul said.   

More than 150 temporary workers living in temporary accommodation were told they would have no income. And with no idea when the dispute would be settled, many had no reason to hang around Port Augusta.

Many of the workers are backpackers, Paul said, meaning “whoever goes there is just going to struggle to find workers”.

Outside a crib room at Tailem Bend where there is plenty of space for the whole crew.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is occurring at the largest PV solar farm in Australia. When completed, the 300ha Bungala site will generate 275MW for the grid. It was already plagued with problems even before the lock-out.

In February a worker was killed while using a hydraulic pile-drive crawler. WorkSafe SA is continuing to investigate how the man was crushed to death while pinned beneath the heavy machinery one Saturday afternoon. 

There can be close to 350 workers on site at any time, but the crib room has only 50 seats and three regular-sized fridges. The topsoil is loose and said to contain high levels of silica, which frequently whips through the site and nearby town in Without adequate crib facilities and the known dangers of silicosis, there is no choice but to evacuate the site when the wind is up. 

When the dispute kicked off ahead of the lock-out, the site was already being shut down and evacuated because of a dust storm. But there was no one to pay the workers for being there anyway.

“Everyone went to work but they had no employer,” Paul said. “That’s why they were locked out of the site.” 

SolarReserve's Crescent Dunes heliostat plant outside Las Vegas. Source: Supplied

CEPU State Secretary John Adley said unions and bosses alike had seen the mess at the Bungala site near Port Augusta and there were conversations being had to ensure that upcoming projects will avoid the same issues by having proper arrangements in place to protect workers’ wages and conditions and to ensure the workforce possesses the necessary skills and licensing.

“We’re trying to avoid the pyramid subcontracting that we’ve seen at Bungala,” Adley said.

“The unfettered use of casuals employed by multiple labour hire companies won’t be tolerated by the unions and neither will unlicensed electrical work. Principle contractors will need to do the job properly stop using dodgy operators which ultimately stuff up the projects.”

The SA Secretary said unions were working hard to ensure future projects are not repeats of the Bungala debacle, highlighting the positive engagement with SolarReserve, which is building the 10,000 heliostat Aurora project 30 kilometres north-west of Port Augusta. A spokesperson for the company said they would be “working closely” with unions “to ensure as much local labour as possible is utilised for the project”.

SolarReserve has committed to working with unions on its Aurora project, which will use heliostat tech similar to Crescent Dunes, to avoid the problems that have plagued the Bungala project.

“SolarReserve considers unions as important stakeholders for the Aurora Solar Energy Project and like all of our stakeholders we are keen to continue to engage with them throughout the delivery of the project,” the spokesperson said.

Port Augusta mayor Sam Johnson said the Bungala dispute has had flow-on effects for the town, with “significant impacts” for local businesses. 

“When you have such a transient workforce it puts people and businesses in limbo,” Cr Johnson said about the locked-out workers.

“If you’re not on site, you’re not getting paid.”

The mayor said while some workers have already packed up and left town for other projects in region, others have taken their frustrations out on “innocent people and innocent business”, pointing out that one local pub was trashed by angry workers.

The mayor of the town dubbed the “Renewables capital of Australia” said the dispute at Bungala was blackmark on the town when that job should be a shining light.

“We should be celebrating this project, but we need to make sure the principal contractors and subcontractors get their employment structures in order,” he said.  

A happy electrical crew at Tailem Bend.

Tailem Bend could not be further away from the situation in Port Augusta where the 25% of the 395,000 solar panels have been installed on 50,000 pylons. There are around 48 sparkies on the site where construction is expected to wrap in mid-2019.

At 127MW, it’s half the size of the Bungala project but it leaves the larger site in the dust when it comes to pay, conditions and workers’ morale.

“Many of them have been taken on as full time which is unusual in the solar industry,” said Paul. 

Despite the remote, sleepy location, an electrician named Bill summed up why he was happy to be in Tailem Bend.

“Money,” he said. “They’re paying double-time and time-and-a-half. All the rest [other solar projects] is labour hire. It’s sh*t.”

Bill said the swing was much friendlier to workers compared to the 13/1 up in Port Augusta and other sites.

At smoko the sparkies are ferried on mini-busses to the crib rooms where there are plenty of seats and plenty of good banter. The lunchrooms are clean, as is the site. Workers’ safety is paramount, which helps the operation run smooth and keeps everyone happy. 

Wal, an electrician on the job since day dot, said safety was a priority for management and staff.

“The safety and focus on looking after your mate – the principles have all been the same since the get go,” he said while commending management’s strong commitment to looking after everyone and supporting the Mates in Construction programme.

Tailem Bend is the exception, but CEPU SA is fighting to see it's t he rule at future solar projects.

“If they hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have the buddy system. Even if you’ve never been on site doesn’t matter. That’s all coming from management.”  

Site manager Mark said he can’t abide by other solar farms that race to the bottom on wages and conditions.

“It’s their model,” he said about undercutting bosses in the large-scale renewables sector.

“But it’s a disgrace because you have one mob over there getting paid $20 less than that other mob and it kicks off and causes problems.”

Looking after your workers, paying them all a decent, equal wage and providing the right conditions?

“It’s easy,” Mark said.

It is easy, and it’s right. But the Tailem Bend site is the exception – not the rule. Solar farm workers deserve better wages and conditions and there is no exception for exploiting foreign labour or using unlicensed electrical workers.

If this can be achieved at small solar farms, the largest in the country has no excuses.

Secretary Adley said the Tailem Bend site had set a standard that should be met by all the projects that will soon fire up across the state. And that’s what the union is fighting for.

“The CEPU SA branch is demanding decent pay and conditions for workers building the future power supply for our state and the national grid,” he said.

“There is an explosion of renewable projects coming up in SA and we hope the Tailem Bend project is the example all others follow for how to treat workers and pay them right.”

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