BiFab workers in Fife returned to work on Monday 20 November with their jobs secure until the end of their current contracts. Hazel Graham and Pete Cannell reflect on the action that produced a speedy resolution to the jobs crisis and why BiFab is so central to a strategy for transition to a low carbon economy.
BiFab is a marine fabrication company working from three Scottish yards, Burntisland and Methil in Fife and Arnish on the Isle of Lewis. Just over a week ago it looked like the company would be forced into administration putting 1,450 jobs at risk. There was no shortage of work; The yards were fully employed in the construction of platforms for the giant Moray Firth wind turbine array. The crisis was precipitated by disputes among the companies contracting for the work and meant that BiFab was unable to draw on funds to pay the workers’ wages.
The crisis is over for the moment. After talks with contractors and unions the Scottish government has provided £15 million loan guarantee. This outcome and the speed of its resolution was entirely due to the action taken by the workers in Fife who blockaded the yards, carried on working and marched on the Scottish parliament in a show of determination and solidarity.
BiFab foregrounds some important issues. First and most importantly, determined and united action gets results. But there are longer-term issues that remain unresolved. The Scottish government support tides BiFab over until the end of the Moray Firth contract. Future employment is at the mercy of the market.
BiFab workers form an important part of a highly skilled marine fabrication workforce in Scotland. Skills developed over the last two decades for the North Sea oil industry are world leading. BiFab’s transition from oil-based fabrication to wind illustrates how those skills can be employed in developing a low carbon economy, but the contractors are interested in short-term profit and the private sector has no serious interest in long-term sustainability. BiFab highlighted this drive for profit; of a workforce of 1450, no less than 1,200 were agency workers. So rather than supporting and nurturing the workforce as an absolutely essential part of a strategy to combat the impact of irreversible climate change they are treated as expendable.
The Scottish government has plans for a state energy company. This is a step in the right direction but nothing like radical enough. A serious plan for transition to a sustainable low carbon economy requires protecting jobs, expanding provision for education, training and reskilling and a massive increase in production of wind, tide and wave energy production capacity. A publicly owned energy company could integrate all these components. The workers at BiFab would be a key part of this.
All of this is possible and achievable, and the Campaign Against Climate Change provides a detailed blueprint in its pamphlet ‘One Million Climate Jobs’. The ScotE3 brochure ‘Scotland at the Crossroads’ outlines how opportunities for employment, secure energy and a sustainable environment can be brought together. But building a campaign to turn ideas into action is critical. The immediate stakes in terms of jobs and precious skills and the present and future consequences of climate change are too high to leave things up to the anarchy of the market.