For a region with a strong history of energy production, it is really exciting that the North East is carving out its place as a clean energy technology hub for the UK. It is great that companies are investing in building new energy production sites and providing some of the new power capacity needed to decarbonise our energy supply and industries.
Three new green energy projects have attracted particular attention as they get underway in the region. Construction is starting on Teesside's Wilton 11 energy plant, due to open in 2016, which will convert household waste to green electricity and will power 63,000 homes. While last week the European Commission gave the go-ahead for the building of two new biomass-Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants in Cramlington (Northumberland) and Teesport, due to come online in 2018. These projects promise hundreds of construction and engineering jobs.
Last Wednesday (21 January) saw the launch of the Teesside Collective - an ambitious plan to create Europe's first Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) equipped industrial zone. CCS clusters around the steel and chemicals industries on Teesside will not only ensure the future of 20,000 local industrial jobs but will create another 4,000 jobs in infrastructure and technological development. This project is a key pillar in Tees Valley Unlimited's strategic plan for jobs and growth on Teesside.
The construction and running of all these sites could provide a much-needed boost to the North East, a region which suffers from some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country and terrible levels of youth unemployment.
However, to ensure this jobs boost is delivered, the main contractors and their subcontractors must give the local workforce a chance. And crucially, to ensure that they are good quality jobs, they must ensure that terms and conditions are in-line with the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI).
Unfortunately, the casualisation of labour in this country has intensified dramatically in recent years, undermining agreed terms and conditions with the abuse of zero hours contracts, the underpaying of minimum wages and loopholes in the protection of temporary agency workers. Agency contracts alone have risen 15% during this recession, faster than any other form of employment in the UK. This feeds economic insecurity, which is all too often exploited by those wanting to divide communities and scapegoat.
That's why I attended a meeting a week ago in Middlesbrough, organised by the unions involved Unite, GMB and UCATT, to address local workers' concerns.
The rising casualisation we are witnessing is a political choice by the Coalition government. Here's one example: in 2011 the UK government included fatal flaws in its implementation of new EU rules on equal treatment for temporary agency workers, creating the so-called 'Swedish Derogation'. This has allowed employment agencies to routinely pay agency workers far less than permanent staff doing the same job, and so drive down costs. Outrageously, EU rights were turned head over heels by the UK government to undermine UK workers' rights.
Ed Miliband's commitment to ending the ‘Swedish derogation’ is a welcome step forward in re-regulating the British labour market. That re-regulation, together with expanding the scope of collective bargaining, is a key element of tackling Britain’s living standards crisis. And it’s a necessary element of a modern labour market: just as the minimum wage helped ensure that we avoided the 'one euro jobs' seen in Germany in the 2000s, ending the Swedish derogation will help shore up wages at the most vulnerable end of today’s labour market. That's why Labour MEPs have been supporting the TUC's complaint against these practices made to the European Commission over a year ago.
The public sector can lead by example, by using reformed EU public procurement rules to ensure that they support local employment, training and the recruitment of apprentices instead of relying only on the lowest price, and by allowing public buyers to exclude lowest-price offers when these low prices are due to failures to comply with obligations arising from social or environmental laws.
Now we need the private sector, such as the subcontractors building our energy futures, to follow suit. To advertise the jobs available locally, to pay the industry rate and to invest in the next generation through good internships.
Only in this way will the investment we urgently need into the North East really benefit our local economy to the maximum, to ensure a brighter, greener and more prosperous future for us all.