ROW: Tensions bubbled up over the new Teesside Freeport
The picture posted on Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen's Twitter feed
Tensions between a union and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen have bubbled up over the new Teesside Freeport.
Final sign off for the free trade zone is expected to come this autumn – with the Conservative mayor saying it will bring 18,000 jobs to the region.
Union Unite has set up a committee to oversee the jobs, pay, and conditions of workers in the new freeport areas.
It also wants assurances from Mr Houchen that “genuine protections” and fair rewards are secured for workers.
But the mayor has accused the union of “politicking at its worst” and “worrying workers across the region for no reason” over its moves.
Unite says freeports must not be used to create “rights-free” zones with lower wages and poorer conditions.
It’s new “hub committee” will be made up of shop stewards and company representatives – and the union adds it will “defend terms and conditions” and ensure the promise of thousands of skills jobs is delivered.
Regional officer Pat McCourt said: “While we welcome the creation of potentially thousands of new jobs on Teesside, it is just as important that the workers who will make this freeport a success are fairly rewarded, enjoying secure employment with good terms and conditions.
“Unite is determined that there will be no race to the bottom in this freeport.
“The North East has had enough of decent jobs being lost and replaced with insecure, low waged work.
“The Teesside Freeport can level up this region but only if well-paid, stable and skilled work is at its heart, and we will be pressing Mr Houchen to deliver on this.”
However, Mr Houchen has hit out at the union’s stance – saying it “makes no sense” and arguing workers’ rights and employment laws were “specifically excluded” from freeports.
“(This) means there is no change in rights and regulations to employees, and nor can there be,” he added.
“The same standards and regulations cover freeports when it comes to employment law as cover the rest of the UK. There is zero difference.
“Also, the freeport oversees the technical tax operation of the freeport – but the freeport itself is in multiple ownerships with lots of private and public sector organisations.
“It would seem the union doesn’t even know what a freeport is, especially given that they opposed the Teesside Freeport when we were asking (the) government for one.”
The Teesside Freeport will cover sites across the region – including Teesworks, the Wilton International complex, Teesside International Airport, the Port of Middlesbrough, the Port of Hartlepool, Liberty Steel and LV Shipping – and will be the biggest in the UK.
It will require Government legislation to be signed before it is fully up and running – and is designed to provide tax relief for businesses along with simpler customs procedures and planning processes.
In the past, Mr Houchen said it would attract investors and has argued it had brought General Electric’s forthcoming factory to Teesside.
But freeports aren’t a new concept – and their benefits have been disputed.
Concerns have been shared over whether they boost overall employment, and just serve to divert existing business from one place to another.
In response to Mr Houchen, Unison hit back – calling his barbs “surprising and absurd”.
Mr McCourt said: “Unite is determined to ensure that workers at the new freeport are part of the high wage, high skilled economy that the Prime Minister keeps on saying he wants to create in the UK.
“Unite is at the forefront of levelling up workers pay – it is a pity that mayor Houchen wants to attack us, rather than work with us as we originally suggested.”
The union representative added Unite had agreements with many of the UK’s biggest employers to help companies as well as providing job security for its members.
“I would suggest that any reasonable person promising the creation of almost 20,000 new jobs on Teesside would want to fully engage with Unite,” added Mr McCourt.
“Mr Houchen’s response is therefore puzzling, however, we will continue to offer to work with those involved with the freeport to ensure our members – who are also Teesside constituents – have a say in the Freeport.”
Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter
Watch the channel on TV