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Debate about what ESB and Bord na Móna workers will do next should have started 'years ago', says union boss

How Bord na Mona and ESB workers are treated is a major test for policymakers, says Ictu.

Ictu says the government should have put plans in place a long time ago.
Ictu says the government should have put plans in place a long time ago.
Image: Rollingnews.ie

A UNION BOSS says “it is a source of deep concern” that the debate around a Just Transition for Bord na Móna and ESB workers “has only just begun”.

Patricia King, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) told an Oireachtas committee today that the conversation about what workers would do after the closure of peat plants should have “started many years ago”.

“At the very least, the government should have taken the lead on this immediately on signing the Paris Agreement in 2016 – an agreement that binds us to specific targets and obliges us to implement a Just Transition,” she said.

“Instead, it appears that official policy constantly struggles to keep pace with events and that jobs are threatened or lost before any support is put in place. Inevitably this leads to fear, uncertainty and distrust among the workers and their communities.

“The current situation in Bord na Mona (BnM) and the ESB is a major test for policymakers,” added King.

She called for a coherent Just Transition framework to address “the real fears” of workers and their communities on the impact of the shift to greener energy production. 

In the case of Bord na Móna, she said this would entail programmes to ensure workers could redeploy or re-skill for new green jobs.

“But these programmes are not yet in place,” she said. 

Pointing to Budget 2020, she said the government announced some €31 million for retraining initiatives, a retrofit programme, and initiatives on bog restoration, all of which may deliver up to 500 jobs.

“But there is no certainty on this,” said King.

“The shift to a low carbon economy offers significant opportunities for new and decent job creation: in renewable energy generation, deep retrofitting, new infrastructure to reduce energy consumption and better public transport.”

“But the State must take the lead and must commit appropriate investment. The market cannot deliver on the scale that is required,” she told the committee.

King said it was “highly regrettable that Bord na Móna management has consistently refused to utilise the good offices of the Work Relations Commission to engage in a forum with workers, whereby all relevant issues can be discussed and resolved”. 

She said it is equally unfortunate that the government while appointing a Just Transition Commissioner, “has explicitly ruled out his having any role in matters pertaining to workers”.

King said it is important to understand that workers and communities across the energy generation sector “are being asked to sacrifice their livelihoods for the greater good of future generations”.

“That creates a moral and social imperative for policy makers to ensure they do not become the collateral damage of decisions taken at a distant remove.

“Bord na Mona and the Midlands will serve as a litmus test for Ireland’s transition to a low carbon economy. If workers and their communities are abandoned to the market then support for the process will evaporate and opposition will grow,” she warned.

Rehabilitating Irish bogs

Also appearing before the committee today was Chief Executive of Bord na Móna, Tom Donnellan. 

He outlined the company’s plans to rehabilitate peatland in the Midlands, saying details will be communicated with staff in the coming weeks.

Bog areas in five counties have been identified, said Donnellan, who gave a breakdown of the 210 redeployment opportunities for workers.

He said the jobs to be made available:

  • 75 roles in former Blackwater group of Bogs in South Roscommon, East Galway and West Offaly.
  • 30 roles in Boora Bogs in West Offaly
  • 54 roles in Mountdillon group of Bogs in North Roscommon and Longford
  • 51 roles in Derrygreenagh bogs in East Offaly and Kildare

Some 400 workers have already left the State-owned company through a voluntary redundancy scheme amid uncertainty about the future.

Bord na Móna announced in 2015 it would fully stop harvesting peat by 2030, and that it was increasing its rehabilitation and restoration of bogs.

Last year, it brought the end of peat forward to 2028, and announced there would be up to 430 job losses as a result of its “decarbonisation plan”.

In order to transition smoothly, Bord na Móna wanted to continue to supply peat along with biomass to be used together to generate electricity at ESB power plants.  

However, An Bord Pleanála refused permission for this in July, sparking serious concerns among workers. Bord na Móna has now reached an agreement with ESB that peat-powered electricity plants in Offaly and Lough Ree will continue to operate until the end of 2020.

The Bord na Móna boss said the company will invest €1.6 billion over the next 10 years and will create:

  • 100 new direct jobs and over 150 indirect jobs in the development of renewable energy assets
  • 100 new jobs in new recycling operations
  • 150-300 potential new jobs in new green businesses from our herb, birchwater and aquaculture projects
  • 210 redeployment opportunities in an accelerated and enhanced peatland rehabilitation programme.

ESB representatives were also in committee today to outline what plans it had in place its workers.

ESB management recently announced that it will close the plants at Shannonbridge and Lanesboro after the government opted to end the harvesting of peat in the region.

The committee was told today that the process of engaging with the 80 people employed in these stations however, they added:

“We cannot confirm our detailed closure plans yet.”

The plans to close will be discussed in the first instance with staff at the stations, committee members were told.

The company said it will be providing workers with redeployment and severance
options, and based on early indications, a number of staff will seek redeployment to other roles within ESB Group.

“We are committed to an orderly closure of the plants and will be commencing our formal engagement with our colleagues on the details of these closures in the coming period,” it said.

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