By HARRY CLARKE
CONTRACTORS and union representatives will meet with a major international solar farm builder on Monday to resolve an ugly industrial relations dispute which this week saw hundreds of workers sacked suddenly via text message.
A combined workforce of 230 electricians, mechanics and unskilled labourers received an SMS about 6am Monday, February 8, saying they’d been laid off from Shell QGC’s Gangarri solar farm construction effective immediately.
“Torquejobs have been advised by the host employer that Saturday 6th was the final shift and they no longer require casual labour hire personnel on the Gangarri Solar Projecty until further advised,” the text message said.
“You will be required to make arrangements to vacate any supplied accomodation this morning Feb 9th and return to your regular places of residence.
“Thank you for you (sic) work on this project and we look forward to working with you in the future.”
The 120 megawatt Gangarri project near the Queensland town of Wandoan has been described to the Caller as a “crown jewel” project for Shell QGC, as the major coal seam gas developer steps into the renewable energy space.
The primary contractor for Gangarri is Sterling & Wilson, an Indian-headquartered solar company which has also just begun building what will be Australia’s largest solar farm, the nearby Western Downs Green Power Hub.
The dispute is over payments between Sterling & Wilson and Davis Contracting, which is providing workers via labour hire company Torquejobs for the installation of solar panels and electrical connection work.
Shell QGC is understood to be furious about the dispute and the negative publicity it has generated, with reportedly only 13 percent of the contract work having been completed.
A Shell QGC spokesperson said the company was not party to the dispute but was working with its contractor to assist in finding a resolution.
“I can’t speak on behalf of another company on any questions specific to their contractual issues,” the spokesperson said.
“We are aware of the matter, and Shell is working with our primary contractor Sterling & Wilson to assist in finding a resolution.
“Shell remains committed to the safe delivery of this project, which will generate ongoing benefits to the local community, deliver 120 megawatts of solar electricity and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around 300,000 tonnes a year.”
Neither Sterling & Wilson nor Davis Contracting have responded to requests by the Caller for comment on the matter.
Queensland Electrical Trades Union state secretary Peter Ong said the problem at Gangarri was symptomatic of what he described as a “cowboy” solar industry in Australia, where workers’ rights were under-regulated.
He said federal legislation and current provisions in the Fair Work Act allowed the casual employees, many of whom were backpackers fulfilling visa obligations, to be sacked without notice.
“To wake up on a Monday morning, putting your boots on, to a text saying you don’t have a job is an absolute disgrace,” Mr Ong.
“Companies are able to employ people on a casual basis and then terminate them on a casual basis. They don’t have any holiday pay, redundancy pay or termination pay – they’re just thrown on the scrap heap.
“The solar industry is continuing to have insecure employment. They need to take ownership of this and their social obligations.
“All we’ve seen are poverty jobs. We’ve seen these companies come into our communities, deliver nothing for those communities, pay ordinary wages and then bugger off to the next one.
“These unscrupulous employers and developers need to be regulated.”