THE leader of Scotland’s largest trade union body has warned the industry is “still no clearer” to what green freeports “mean for workers on the ground”.

Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) general secretary Roz Foyer told the National that “no amount of spin, window dressing or green washing can hide” the Scottish Government’s “worrying misstep” surrounding the launch of the first green freeports in Scotland.

“More than a year on from the announcement, we are still no clearer on what these freeports will mean for workers on the ground.

“Unions have consistently pressed the government on how they will enforce fair work standards across the sites, in addition to ensuring all workers across the ports will receive at least the Real Living Wage,” she added.

READ MORE: What are green freeports? Everything you need to know about the schemes

The comments come amid our week-long series on Scotland’s green freeports after an overwhelming amount of reader interest and concern.

Inverness and Cromarty Firth green freeport and Forth green freeport were announced as Scotland’s two winning bids in January last year through the scheme agreed by the Scottish and UK governments.

The port status can provide special tax incentives and lower tariffs, with the aim of stimulating economic growth. Critics, including Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer, highlight the experimental nature of the ports. Greer also argued that diverging from the EU’s “minimum standards” on trade would hamper Scotland’s chances for rejoining the EU.

Greer further told The National: “What freeports did, more often than not, was displace jobs rather than create new jobs. You had companies who already were operating within the UK, who simply moved their operations to the areas that the freeports were in. So there was no net benefit. No new jobs were being created, but there was a net loss of tax revenue. So that's a net loss for public services.”

The National:

However, in a recent appearance at Scotonomics’ Festival of Economics, the Scottish Government’s Energy and Environment Minister Gillian Martin said assurances for fair work was “baked into the contracts”, highlighting the name change.

The minister was asked by an audience member about freeports and fair work. She replied: “The freeport model as was, was looked into by the Scottish Government to include fair work in it. We have to have Real Living Wage in employment associated with freeports – and actually that’s why the name has been changed to ‘green freeports’.

“So, the conditions around the freeport that fair work was baked into the contracts around the green ports status for that reason.”

READ MORE: Green freeports wouldn’t stop indy Scotland joining EU, minister says

Martin added that the issue of fair work in the scheme was an issue she “was very nervous about”.

“I was very nervous about this freeport idea when it was being touted by the Conservatives and then all of a sudden, we’re looking at it in Scotland, ‘well, hang on a second – we don’t want that model that is just about tax breaks for companies.’”

“This has to be a model that ensures that you have got the lowest emissions possible with what you’re doing but you’ve also got a binding contract that the jobs associated with the port are, at the very least, living wage.”

However, Foyer argued that workers need “assurances” over rights across freeports after seeing the UK Government “on their ideological, mad charm offensive” to corporate companies.

READ MORE: Highlands green freeport tax sites 'live and active soon'

The first freeports in the UK opened in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher in an effort to combat de-industrialisation and a declining economy. It was only in 2012 that the Tory-led government decided not to renew their licences.

And in a House of Commons report from 2020, which quoted a UK Government freeports consultation document, it said: "There is evidence in some cases that zone-based policy can have a displacement effect, leading to reduced job opportunities in areas which are not freeports."

The report also found that the cost per job created in terms of tax relief was approximately £17,000 in 1994/1995, or £40,000 in today’s prices.

The National:

“What we do know, time after time, is that freeports lead to job displacement, tax displacement from the local and national economy in addition to attacks on environmental and workers’ rights,” Foyer (above) said.

“Whilst the UK Government is too far gone on their ideological, madcap charm offensive to corporate entities on these sites, the Scottish Government cannot follow suit. If we intend to be a fair work nation by 2025, unions really need assurances over collective bargaining and workers’ rights at these ports across Scotland.

“We won’t be caught in a race to the bottom. We will continue to demand an alternative vision for Scotland’s workers; one that values decent work, fair conditions, and collective bargaining at its core.”

Miriam Brett, co-director Future Economy Scotland, echoed Foyer’s comments in response to Martin, adding: “I think that the Scottish Government has made changes to that [freeports] to try and improve it – and that decision was taken at a UK Government level.”

READ MORE: SNP trade unionists call for green freeports ‘review' 

“Freeports are tried, tested, and failed models – so they were rolled out under Thatcher, they were rolled out again under successive governments. It’s interesting that when you see freeports in the press, it’s often pictures of really bustling ports and actually, they’re massive warehouses and look a lot sadder than the pictures would make it seem.”

She added that “the regulatory black holes” include “issues with supply chains rights” as well.

“The people that we benefit are often just the super-rich so it’s good that there’s conditionals attached to them but actually I think they should be really wary about that,” Brett said.

“We should also question the level of job creation that they are actually bringing and also question the level of organic investments and new investments in an area because traditionally when we assess the strengths and weaknesses of freeports in the past – you could argue there are more weaknesses than there are strengths – but one of the issues with them is that investment isn’t actually organically created there, it’s detracted from the surrounding areas and I think that should actually be something we should be really wary of going forward.”