Skilled workers from the Islands hoping to find work on massive offshore windfarm projects are being disadvantaged by a special Home Office exemption from immigration rules which has been extended several times.
And despite all the top-level publicity about restricting immigration from outside the EU to only jobs paying more than £30,000 a year – a rule which has badly affected Highlands and Islands hospitality businesses – some of the workers from Russia and Indonesia are paid less than the minimum wage.
The UK Home Office says that it has again continued a concession to the immigration rules to allow the employment of non-European Economic Area nationals who are joining vessels engaged in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind projects in UK territorial waters.
The concession will now allow workers leave to enter the UK until 21 April 2019 for the purpose of joining a vessel engaged in the construction and maintenance of a wind farm within UK territorial waters.
During this period, firms involved in the construction or maintenance of wind farms within territorial waters “should look to regularise the position of their workers”, the Home Office says.
This situation has been brought to the attention of Islands MP Angus Brendan MacNeil by Stornoway man Neil Campbell, and Mr MacNeil has raised the matter with the Home Office.
Neil was reacting to a major article on-line in The Guardian newspaper. He told the MP that he was shocked to learn that the U.K. Government had allowed this to happen.
“As we enter another round of U.K. awards to build major Scottish wind farms, which I hope to be re-employed in next year, I would like to ask you to find out what has been put in place to stop this happening again.
“Imagine the numbers of experienced offshore workers in the Highlands & Islands that could have be transferred to this work in the coming years.”
The Guardian said the workers hired to build the flagship £2.6bn Beatrice offshore windfarm included migrants without proper immigration documents paid a fraction of the UK minimum wage.
Offshore windfarming is one of the UK’s biggest growth industries, hailed by both the Conservatives and Labour as a priority for investment that will create thousands of jobs while also producing clean energy.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ union (RMT) have said, however, that the use of cheap foreign labour instead of local workers is a growing problem in the sector’s subcontracting chains. They have accused the government of failing to protect workers.
A group of Russian workers recruited as relief crew on the giant crane ship contracted to carry out the initial construction on the Beatrice windfarm were detained by immigration officials at Aberdeen airport in April 2017.
They were being brought in to the country on seafarer identity documents, intended for foreign crew leaving UK waters immediately, instead of the official permits required of people from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) entering the UK to work.
Permits have not historically been available for lower skilled people from non-EEA countries work on vessels that operate in the UK’s territorial waters.
But in an extraordinary relaxation of immigration rules, the Home Office granted a six-month, time-limited waiver to the windfarm industry to use non-EEA workers on 21 April 2017. The ITF said it was needed to give the Russians stuck at Aberdeen airport leave to enter.
An ITF inspection on board the crane ship in the Moray Firth the following month found more than 140 migrant workers, the majority from Russia and some from Indonesia.
Contracts for some of them, seen by the Guardian, set rates of pay that were less than the UK minimum wage.
Beatrice is a joint venture led by the privatised utility Scottish and Southern Electricity (SSE), and is one of the largest investments made in Scottish infrastructure. It is due to be completed next year.
The SSE consortium won a licence to develop the windfarm in UK territorial waters with pledges that it would aim to recruit locally. It subcontracted part of the construction to a leading firm specialised in offshore operations, Seaway Heavy Lifting (SHL).
SHL deployed one of its giant crane ships, the Stanislav Yudin, to work on the project a few miles from the Scottish coast.