Work has stopped on the 120MW Gangarri solar project near Wandoan in Queensland – the first major solar farm to be built in Australia by global oil giant Shell – after an alleged dispute over payments between contractors led to the standing down of up to 230 workers on Monday.
Dan McGaw, the state organiser for the Electrical Trades Union in Queensland, told RenewEconomy that up to 230 casual workers installing solar panels and doing electrical work on the site had received a text message first thing on Monday morning saying their services were no longer required and to pack their bags.
“The workers were given no notice. It’s so disappointing. They had to take everything, some had to leave tools at the site,” McGaw told RenewEconomy.
McGaw said the problems at the site had been brewing for some time and at least some of the issues emerged from a dispute between the EPC (primary) contractor, the Indian-based Sterling and Wilson, and the electrical contractor, Davis Contracting.
The text, issued by hire form Torque, read …
“Torque jobs 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 Project until further advised. You will be required to make arrangements to vacate any supplied accommodation this morning Feb 8th and return to your regular places of residence.
“In accordance with your Notice of Offer your current assignment will end as of this morning Feb 8th; the Recruitment Team will be in contact with suitable labour hire roles as and when they come available.”
Shell confirmed there were issues at the solar project which it hoped would be resolved soon.
“I can’t speak on behalf of another company on any questions specific to their contractual issues,” a Shell spokesperson said in an emailed statement to RenewEconomy.
“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.”
The Gangarri project began construction a year ago and was expected to be complete in early 2021, but the ETU’s McGaw said the mechanical installation was less than half complete, and only 13 per cent of the electrical work had been completed.
Sterling & Wilson is a new entrant to the Australian solar market, which has witnessed the departure, and failure, of numerous contractors because of big losses caused by connection delays and other problems. One big Australian contractor, RCR Tomlinson, collapsed and was liquidated because of big losses from solar contracts.
Sterling & Wilson has landed other major contracts in Australia. Apart from Gangarri, it has built the 200MW Wellington project owned by another oil major BP and its solar joint venture Lightsource BP, and what will be the country’s biggest solar farm, the 420MW Western Downs project being developed by Neoen.
It is also building the 169MW Columboola solar farm in Queensland, on behalf of South Korea-based Hana Financial Investment.
“There have been contractual disputes for many months between SWA and Davis and this morning workers were caught in the cross fire,” McGaw said.
“Davis has previously stood its workforce down for a day at a time, but today saw the complete withdrawal of the blue collar workforce.” Davis also said the Department of Work Health and Safety issuing dozens of Improvement Notices as well as a number of Infringement Notices.
“The ETU has tried to reach out to Sterling and Wilson to try and find a resolution for the workers but our calls remain unanswered.”
RenewEconomy has also sought comment from Sterling & Wilson and Davis Contracting.