Driven by the imperative of climate change, rapid technological development and ageing fossil fuel generation, global energy markets are changing rapidly.
Australia is not immune to these changes. Our electricity and gas markets and networks are undergoing a dramatic and at times chaotic transformation with no enduring overarching national planning, policy or coordination. Despite this the renewable energy industry has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, to the point where the ABS estimates it employed nearly 27,000 Australians in 2018/19. This growth in renewable energy jobs is being replicated globally and is predicted to accelerate over coming years due to declining renewable energy technology costs, converging global efforts to slow global warming and the retirement of ageing fossil fuel plant. The future competitiveness of energy-intensive industries such as mining, metals smelting, recycling and manufacturing is also increasingly dependent upon having access to low emissions, low cost electricity.
Section 2 of this ACTU report briefly summarises the extent and types of employment in Australia’s renewable energy sector, and the characteristics of those jobs. It explores the industry’s growth prospects and the current status of deployment of large- and small-scale renewable energy technologies. The changing drivers for new investment in renewable energy projects are discussed including the growing influence of voluntary purchasers of, and investors in, renewable energy who will be looking to ensure renewable energy projects deliver maximum community benefits and good quality jobs.
Section 3 outlines why unions have had concerns about the quality of renewable energy jobs and why the industry needs to pay more attention to this aspect of its social licence. In large part the union movement’s experience has been that many new renewable energy jobs have been short-term, insecure and poorly paid, compared with the permanent, secure, well-paid and unionised jobs in coal, oil and gas that often underpin regional economies. It explores some of the structural and operational challenges that need to be overcome to make the renewable energy industry an industry of choice for workers. Particular attention is paid to the current practice of outsourcing construction of renewable energy projects to labour hire contractors, which is where many of the poor employment practices occur, and to ensuring project developers are maximising local job creation through procurement, hiring and local content planning.
Section 4 provides some examples of both best and worst cases of labour standards in the industry and highlights some issues particular to the small scale solar industry.
The report concludes in section 5 with an agenda developed by Australian unions to improve the quality and security of jobs in the renewable energy sector so that a low carbon future delivers secure and sought-after jobs for the current and future generations of Australian workers. This best practice agenda, if adopted, will establish Australia’s renewable energy industry on solid foundations to support the growth and competitiveness of the industry and will ensure the benefits of renewable energy projects are more fully shared with workers, their families and communities through guaranteed local jobs and stronger employment conditions.
Australian unions are ready and willing to work in partnership with Australia’s renewable energy industry, governments and the energy sector to ensure a successful energy transition that creates good quality jobs across the country and a bright future for the industry. We look forward to working with the renewables industry, renewable energy purchasers and investors and governments to achieve this vision.