Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Freeport proposal must benefit workers and communities

Following the last meeting of Aberdeen Trades Union Council, President Graeme Farquhar  has written to councillors seeking assurances on Freeports.

Dear Councillor,

Aberdeen Freeport

Aberdeen Trades Union Council (ATUC) is the collective voice of trade unions in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and has affiliated branches representing tens of thousands of workers in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

We note that the Scottish Government issued an invitation for bids for ‘Greenports’ in early 2021, and at its meeting on 3 February 2021 Aberdeen City Council’s City Growth and Resources Committee instructed the relevant Chief Officer to work with the UK and Scottish Governments, the Harbour Board and all other stakeholders to conduct a feasibility study for a Freeport for the City Region and report back to the next meeting on 11 May 2021. 

This follows the positive response of Aberdeen City Council in May 2020 to the UK Government consultation on Freeports, and the 2020 report of the Council’s Economic Policy Panel (on which there is not trade union representation) which noted that Council Officers had already been working “on the feasibility of a free port/enterprise model for the city region”.

A Freeport, or any enterprise, cannot function without workers and the implications for workers are fundamentally important to the design and principles behind a Freeport. We are disappointed that the Committee has not yet seen fit to communicate with ATUC, with a view to examining the implications of different Freeport models for workers. We remain ready and willing to work with Aberdeen City Council to do this, and in the interim wish to make a number of comments.

We recognise the critical importance of two issues. Addressing the impact of climate change on the planet is vital, and it directly impacts citizens of the Aberdeen City Region. There is also a need to secure high quality, well paid jobs for local people, and this is especially an issue for Aberdeen given the size of the offshore oil and gas industry based here. Linking these issues is the need for a ‘Just Transition’ to support workers as the economy changes, and to maximise their vital and transferable skills.

There are a number of new economic models which are attracting interest across Scotland, including Freeports and Community Wealth Building. Freeports are designated areas where the normal tax and tariff rules of their host country do not apply. Typically, they allow production and re-export to take place with more limited regulations and tariffs than would otherwise be the case.

The last of the previous set of Freeports in the UK were closed in 2012, following concerns
about embezzlement.

ATUC believes that Aberdeen should be seeking to uphold high standards, including for workers’ rights. Zones of deregulation involve significant personal risks for individual workers employed there, but also reputational risks for Aberdeen which would also have an economic impact. It is important that these issues are satisfactorily addressed in any Freeport model. 

Alongside the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), we endorse the Fair Work approach of the Scottish Government. However this is a generic approach to create a baseline and is insufficient on its own for many situations - such as a Freeport. The STUC also responded1 to the UK Government consultation, and we wish to highlight a number of questions raised in the response which we think should be fully addressed in any proposal:

1. Offshoring in the energy sector has often led to low paid, insecure jobs with poor health and safety and abuse of migrant workers. Linked to all of these is an absence of trade union recognition or collective bargaining. What safeguards will there be to ensure these?
2. Jobs in Freeports are often merely displaced from elsewhere. How will it be ensured that any jobs created are genuinely additional?
3. Freeports may just be for the benefit of external companies. How will local supply chains be supported and developed?
4. How will it be ensured that there are sufficient customs officials with adequate powers to ensure compliance?
5. How will a holistic plan for reducing carbon emissions, including in transport, be enforced once a Freeport is established?
6. Will there be a meaningful equality impact assessment produced and opened to external scrutiny before the plans are approved?
7. What safeguards will be in place to ensure that a Freeport is not used to avoid UK data protection standards?
8. Will funding and administration of a Freeport be done through the democratically accountable public sector, or a PFI-type model which has repeatedly been seen to fail?
9. How will any proposals for economic development complement a decent living environment for local people?

If Aberdeen City Council has policy objectives to be achieved which it believes a Freeport may achieve, we believe it is good practice for there to be a proper options appraisal to consider other alternatives.

I would thank you for taking the time to consider our points, and ATUC remains ready to engage with the Committee and the whole Local Authority further on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Graeme

Graeme Farquhar
President
Aberdeen Trades Union Council

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