On November 16th, 2017, hundreds of workers at the BiFab fabrication yards in Fife marched down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile towards the Scottish Parliament in a magnificent show of determination to save their jobs. Three years on, and despite nearly £54 million investment from the Scottish Government, the hope raised on that day lies in tatters. BiFab could have been a milestone on the path to a zero-carbon economy. Instead, it stands as a warning that should not be ignored.
In this post I tell the story of BiFab and argue for the importance of a radically different approach.
BiFab was founded in Fife in 2001. Initially based at Burntisland, it expanded to take over the huge construction yard just up the coast at Methil and the Arnish yard on the Isle of Lewis. The company played a significant part in fabricating platforms for the development of the west of Shetland oil and gas fields. As demand declined it began manufacturing jackets for offshore wind installations.
In 2016 the company won a £100 million order to manufacture jackets for the Beatrice windfarm in the Moray Firth. The November 2017 crisis was sparked by cash flow problems linked to this contract. At this point the company employed around 1400 workers, although notably 1200 of these were on agency contacts rather than direct employees. All these jobs were at risk.
BiFab workers responded by occupying the yards, ensuring that no valuable equipment could be removed, and, on the 16th November, they marched on the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government stepped in, providing a £15 million loan that ensured that the firm avoided going into administration. The occupations ended and work on the jackets for Beatrice resumed. But the relief was short lived. The Beatrice contract was nearly complete, there was nothing else in the order book, and agency contracts were just not renewed. The workforce was scattered to the winds.
In April 2018 the Scottish Government brokered a take over of the company. The new owners were DF Barnes, a subsidiary of the Edmonton based Canadian company DV Driver. The Herald on Sunday has recently revealed that DV Driver obtained ownership for £1. The Government retained a minority stake.
Since the takeover, opportunities to build jackets for major new North Sea windfarms have been up for grabs. One of these, ‘Neart na Gaoithe’, is just a few miles off the Fife coast from the BiFab yard at Methil. Another, Seagreen, which, when complete, will be the biggest in Scottish waters, is just a bit further north, off the coast of Angus. But contracts have gone to overseas yards in Spain, Indonesia, the UAE and China.
So, despite a Scottish Government investment that may reach £52.4 million, BiFab is close to total collapse. The Scottish and UK Governments argue that despite, or because, of their stake in the firm, European competition rules made it impossible for them to guarantee the BiFab bids.
The trade unions representing BiFab workers have contested this view. The Courier newspaper noted on October 29th that
‘In a legal opinion for the GMB and Unite trade unions, Lord Davidson has described the Scottish Government’s reasoning as “remarkable”, given the looming end of the Brexit transition period and suggested Scottish ministers could have deferred any decision until after Brexit on December 31.’
This legal view is clearly true; however, focusing on interpretations of the law misses much more important issues. The Scottish Government is firmly wedded to the idea that the transition to a zero-carbon economy can be carried through by private enterprise. BiFab is just one of many examples of how this approach fails. Bids are allocated primarily on price and when the ‘cheapest’ bidder is located on the other side of the world that’s the one that’s chosen. The fact that this results in massive carbon emissions as jackets are shipped to the coast of Scotland isn’t factored in. Equally important the bidding system favours international companies that operate on a world stage and take no responsibility for joined up planning of transition in the local economies from which they profit.
To achieve zero carbon, we need much shorter supply chains, so that construction, energy generation and consumption are brought much closer together. Demanding that the manufacture of jackets and wind turbines takes place in Scotland is not about putting Scottish workers first but a necessity for the rational use of resources. Different locations offer different combinations of renewable energy resources, but sustainable energy production is necessary everywhere. Tackling the climate crisis requires local and global perspectives. Climate jobs are needed in every part of the world. It’s important to stress that while construction and energy production should be as local as possible – international solidarity requires that knowledge should be shared freely and that financial and material support is provided to countries in the global south. This of course is the opposite of what happens now as new innovations are locked into commercial patents.
Leaving transition to the market relies on the expectation that multiple independent decisions made by individual companies on the basis of maximising profit will achieve the goal of a zero-carbon economy. It’s an incredibly inefficient approach. Consider wind, a resource that’s abundant in Scotland. There has been a rapid growth in offshore wind powered electricity generation but at the same time the numbers working in renewables in Scotland has fallen, reducing local skills and knowledge and impacting on local economies. A partial transition but one that has been inherently unjust, and which puts obstacles in the path of the full transition that we need.
For the sake of the climate that our children will inherit and for the lives and livelihoods of the present generation there’s a pressing need for trade unionists and climate activists to campaign together for a new approach that integrates social justice with real, immediate practical actions to tackle the climate crisis. This means:
- Systematic planning at local and national levels to plan a rapid transition to zero carbon.
- Large scale public investment in new democratically controlled public enterprises to implement these plans.
These demands may seem a long way off. But we’ve seen during the pandemic that, when there’s political will, things that would have been considered impossible become possible. Old laws are thrown out and new laws are written. We’ve also seen how in the face of a crisis public systems deliver and private companies rake in profits and fail.
The first and immediate step should be an emergency action plan that takes the BiFab yards into public ownership, reemploys the workforce and puts the skills and knowledge of the workers at the heart of a sustained commitment to develop the yards as hubs for the engineering initiatives that are essential to a worker led just transition.
Pete Cannell (November 25th, 2020)
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