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Union protests could cause Suez to reconsider Teesside investments

The chief executive of Suez UK has said he would reconsider investing in Teesside following a wave of union protests at one of its energy-from-waste (EfW) plants in the area.

David Palmer-Jones told MPs he was “thinking twice” about further investment after 29 protests this year at the company’s Wilton 11 plant over allegations that workers were being paid below agreed industry rates – a claim that Suez rejects.

“I am not an employment lawyer at all. I just see the effects on our business and on my feelings about whether I continue to invest in Teesside in the future,” he said.

Suez has invested around £700m into the facility and currently employs more than 500 local people. Palmer-Jones said he had the ability to invest more but, when faced with such protests, he would “think twice about where he spent his money”.

Giving evidence as a witness at a public bill committee meeting on 15 October to consider the Government’s proposed Trade Union Bill, he accused union leaders of supporting intimidation in the dispute over wages, resulting in “undue disruption” for local people.

Union leaders later told the MPs there was no “substantive evidence” for such criticism.

The dispute between the unions and Sita Sembcorp UK (SSUK), a consortium between Suez UK and Sembcorp, continues over the alleged undercutting of wages of foreign construction workers at the EfW plant.

Unite, GMB and Ucatt unions are demanding an independent wage audit at the site, which Suez rejects, saying that it has already carried out its own audit of the site’s 60 contractors.

Following the investigation by SSUK, through its main contractor CNIM Clugston, two sub-contractors were kicked off the site for failing to respond to questions about pay rates.

Palmer-Jones said the protests had continued despite the evidence from the investigation.

“Clearly, people feel very intimidated,” he told MPs. “We have a situation where council employees delivering waste to the site feel quite intimidated to cross the picket line and a protest that is very much dressed in the union colours. They do not want to cross, [even though] it is not industrial action.”

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny told the public bill committee that there had been no police charges and he understood that relationships between police and those involved in the protests were “pretty good”.

“Forgive me if I am a bit sceptical of people coming along and saying, ‘at the bottom of the garden there are fairies’,” Kenny said. “There may be, but I have not seen them, I would like to see them before [you] legislate.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said that officers and protesters had worked together to facilitate “peaceful protests” and ensure minimum disruption to local residents.

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