In early April a German-owned cargo ship, the Hanna, left the Vietnamese port of Phu My. It sailed down the Thi Vai river and across the South China Sea to Singapore, where it berthed briefly. It continued through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. After another quick stop in Taranto, it sailed west through the Strait of Gibraltar, around Spain, past the Bay of Biscay, through the Channel and into the North Sea. It was bound for Hull. By lunchtime on 6 May, more than a month after setting out from Vietnam, it was steaming up the Humber.
I wanted to confirm what was on board, so I looked on the internet and found a pub, the Humber Tavern, in the village of Paull, that seemed to have a good view of the water. I rang, and found the landlord, Trevor, getting ready for his post-lockdown reopening. After some reluctance to humour a cold-caller’s strange request, the phrases ‘all the way from Vietnam’ and ‘Scottish workers sacked’ piqued his interest. He agreed to take a look.
‘Let me just get my binoculars,’ he said. ‘I can see it. Big feller, isn’t it?’
‘Can you see anything on the deck?’ I said.
‘Huge things like giant barrels,’ he said.
‘A kind of grey colour?’
The Korean company CS Wind makes wind towers in Phu My. They’re much bigger than barrels. They’re hollow, tapered columns of thick, painted steel, hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of tonnes in weight, which raise wind turbines high off the ground and give their immense rotor blades space to turn. The Hanna was delivering newly made wind towers, in sections, to Hull, where they would be put on installation vessels and taken out into the North Sea. There, they would be fixed to foundations in the seabed and have turbines mounted on them, becoming part of the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, Hornsea Two, due to become fully operational next year.
The towers could have been made much closer to hand. A factory in Campbeltown, on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland, made towers for Hornsea One. But it shut down in 2019 after its owners said they couldn’t turn a profit. In a small town with diminishing opportunities, a hundred people lost their jobs. It’s a familiar story: small British firm loses out to cheaper products made by low-paid workers overseas. Then again it wasn’t as familiar as it seemed. The British factory and the Vietnamese factory belonged to the same company: CS Wind. Western industry wasn’t brought low by a nimble competitor from the east. CS Wind came west, set up shop and undercut itself. All CS Wind’s factories – the Scottish one and the Vietnamese one, along with others in Taiwan, Malaysia, China and Canada (the Canadian factory was shut down like the Scottish one) – are really one vast factory, in which workers doing the same job are paid wildly different salaries, work radically different hours and get painfully different levels of support from the state.
The CS Wind story is one of politicians and electorates in wealthy countries trying to reconcile the irreconcilable goals of cheap green energy, free trade and secure, well-paid green energy jobs for their own workers. There’s something more unsettling involved too: an inspiring, utopian, internationalist movement to save humanity from climate emergency comes across a once inspiring, once utopian, once internationalist movement to save humanity from capitalist exploitation, and walks on by.
I went to Campbeltown in early February 2020. I flew to Glasgow and hired a car. The drive took about four hours. It would have taken three, but I kept stopping and getting out of the car to look at the hills and sky and dark water and listen to the silence. There was a faint dusting of snow. As the crow flies, Glasgow isn’t that far away – neither is Belfast – but hills and sea and sea lochs intrude. Occasionally closed by landslides, the road to Campbeltown, at the southern end of the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll, is a huge dog-leg, north up Loch Lomond, west to Inveraray, then south down Kintyre between the islands of Arran, Jura and Islay.
Campbeltown clusters round the port at the head of Campbeltown Loch, then thins out in a strew of houses up the slopes behind. When I arrived, the Rotra Vente was in the harbour, a specialist wind tower carrier with a huge hangar on top to protect the towers in transit and a bow that lifts clear off the ship so that the sections can be loaded and unloaded. Bits of tower big enough to drive a bus through lay on the quay, waiting to be put on board. More were on the way. The other guests at my B&B were two extra-peninsular policemen contracted to escort the towers the six miles from the factory to the dock. Despite the mighty ship and the evidence of heavy industry, Campbeltown seemed quiet and a little sombre, a town with its curtains drawn, an out of season resort watching its year-round side hustles disappear. The loading and the police escorts were in any case a kind of illusion. The factory had closed: the towers being shipped out for Hornsea One were made by a workforce that had already been laid off.
I drove to the factory, a group of huge white sheds on the western side of the peninsula, the opposite side from Campbeltown. They lie among the old barracks and green security fencing of the former Machrihanish military airfield, at various times a nuclear weapons storage site, a US Navy Seals base and – the runway is exceptionally long – an emergency landing strip for the US space shuttle. A golf course sits between the factory and the Atlantic. I parked outside the office block. In the distance a small group of workers wearing high-viz overalls were occupied preparing one of the last sections for shipment. I’d been told the automatic doors to reception were broken and, sure enough, they wouldn’t budge. I worked my fingers into the rubber strips in the divide and prised them open a crack. Then they opened smoothly. There was a small atrium with a reception desk and stairs leading up to a mezzanine. It was the middle of the working day but nobody was there. In the offices behind reception, there were computers plugged in and papers piled on desks, but no workers. I saw there was a lift. I pressed the call button and the doors slid open. On the middle of the floor of the lift was a rubbish sack, half-full of something heavy. I didn’t want to get into the lift with the rubbish sack. I let the doors close.
There was a sound from somewhere. ‘Hello?’ I said. ‘Hello?’ I heard the sound again. It was someone talking upstairs. I climbed the stairs to the mezzanine and saw a young woman dressed in black leggings, an orange hi-viz jacket a couple of sizes too big and a safety helmet. She was talking to someone on her mobile. She finished the call and told me all the managers who might be able to speak to me were away on business.
‘How do you like Campbeltown?’ I asked.
‘The environment is better,’ she said.
‘The air is cleaner?’
‘Yes. And the food is better.’
‘Really? Is it like any parts of Korea?’
‘Yes. The sea and the mountains …’
She tailed off.
‘How do you describe it to people in Korea?’
‘I am not Korean. I am Chinese.’
‘From CS Wind in China?’
‘No, from CS Wind in Canada. I am quality control.’
‘I thought the Canadian factory was closed?’
‘We have an office there.’
At about the same time CS Wind shut down, another large employer, the local creamery, also closed. Among ex-CS Wind workers, bitterness at the loss of their jobs was braided with stories of harsh working conditions. The pressure on workers and management to meet deadlines without sacrificing quality – competing with wind tower factories around the world and, most directly, it turns out, with their own company’s factory seven time zones away in Vietnam – had been intense to the point of danger. Thomas Maguire was sacked in 2018 for refusing to follow an order. He was told to use a heavy-duty forklift called a reach stacker to move a tower section. The section, a steel cylinder weighing about a hundred tonnes, lay on its side, a temporary ring attached at each end to keep it clear of a set of wheels that rotated it while it was being spray-painted. Normally the freshly painted section would be moved outside along a motorised track; then the painting ring would be removed and two reach stackers, one at each end, would lift it and move it to a storage area. But the track motors weren’t working. Maguire was told to use the reach stacker to hoist the section – a free-rolling cylinder the weight of a mid-sized passenger jet – off the paint line without removing the painting ring. He refused, for a good reason: the hooks on the reach stackers weren’t big enough to hold a tower section securely when the painting ring was attached. With the ring bolted on, the steel rim was too fat, and there was no grip. It would have taken twenty minutes to take the ring off, which was what Maguire asked to be allowed to do, but it was twenty minutes too long for his gaffer. ‘He said: “We haven’t got time. If it falls, I’ll take the blame,”’ Maguire told me. ‘And I say: “That’s not how it works.” And he says: “If you’re not going to do what you’re fucking told, find another job, Tommy.”’ A month later, Maguire was fired for ‘gross misconduct’ in connection with the incident. A few months after that his manager, Sung-Il Park, quietly ordered a bigger hook.
The judge who heard the case at an industrial tribunal in Glasgow, Shona MacLean, described CS Wind as having ‘a very cavalier attitude’ towards disciplinary rules and the two senior managers who gave evidence, S.K. Yoon and Y.C. Kim, as having ‘very poor recollection of the events’. Yet she found in favour of the firm: her 32-page judgment found that, since Maguire had yielded to pressure to do the same dangerous thing in the past, it couldn’t be dangerous. Maguire described one meeting that took place after the incident and before his sacking where Park told him it was pointless to refuse to lift the section because ‘the whole [factory] premises were unsafe.’ ‘The Tribunal … considered that it was highly unlikely that Mr Park would say that,’ MacLean wrote in her judgment.
Lesley Black was one of the most senior locals employed in the Campbeltown factory. I bumped into her outside her house, a pebbledashed semi in a street of similar houses between the town centre and the fields of sheep further up the hill. We met later in a café by the harbour. Outside, a bed of hardy municipal flowers clustered low and tight against the chill. Every so often a car went by. We weren’t the only customers, but a sense of surplus space and time, an absence of hustle and bustle, seeped in from the street. Black’s job was head of customer management and UK sales. On 11 December 2019, she had a stroke. On 20 December, CS Wind fired her. ‘They just made me redundant,’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen them. I haven’t heard from them. I haven’t had a phone call, nothing.’
Throughout 2019, workmanship and safety standards had plunged. ‘There were so many safety incidents in the last twelve months that weren’t reported,’ Black said. One that had to be reported was the case of Daniel Niedzwiedzki. ‘He got the top of his head smashed in because he went to do a job he wasn’t qualified to do because the quality manager couldn’t wait all morning,’ she told me. ‘He’s all right now but he’s got a life-changing injury. They said: “Can we not get him back to work in the morning?” “Well, his leg’s broken and his head’s smashed in, so – no.”’1
To grasp what happened in Campbeltown, and in Vietnam and Canada and everywhere else CS Wind has operated, it helps to understand that CS Wind is at the bottom of the wind industry’s pyramid of control. At the top are the project developers, who organise and finance the construction of wind farms in exchange for long-term contracts to supply electricity, companies like the Danish government-controlled Ørsted, which built Hornsea One and is building Hornsea Two, or the London-listed, Scotland-based SSE. They don’t make or install the wind turbines. They rely on big engineering companies to do that. In Europe and much of the world the two dominant players are the Danish company Vestas and the German-Spanish firm Siemens-Gamesa (Siemens has the larger shareholding). Vestas and Siemens, in turn, don’t make every part of the turbines, or do the epic job of setting them in place, though they do keep to themselves much of the highest value, most technologically advanced work: the manufacture of the blades and the electricity-generating turbines themselves, which are known, after the metal enclosures that house them, as ‘nacelles’. The rest – the elements that fix the turbine towers to the ground or the seabed, and the towers themselves – is contracted out.
Black thought the Korean management had lost belief in the Scottish plant some time before they admitted as much. Why else would they have turned work down? In the bleak months of 2019, when no new work was coming in, Black heard of a company that was planning to build a new wind farm onshore in Scotland. It needed towers. ‘There was a gap,’ she said. ‘We would either have nothing or we would have this and I went away and got the order. And [management] said: “We don’t want it.” They said their plan to reduce the headcount was already ongoing.’
It’s true that the factory’s main focus, from the day CS Wind began operating there, was offshore towers. It was fulfilling its first big order, for a hundred towers for Hornsea One, but desperately needed fresh contracts for the longer term. Vestas and Siemens had a virtual monopoly on offshore tower orders in British waters, and they represented Campbeltown’s hopes. If CS Wind could make towers for Siemens’s Hornsea One, why not for Hornsea Two? As for Vestas, it was interested to find out if Campbeltown could manufacture towers for its turbines. It ordered three trial towers, just to see.
In the course of 2019, both hopes fell through. The Vestas trial was a disaster. Some of the plant’s best people had already been let go; they didn’t get the designs in time; they didn’t paint the towers well. ‘That’s it. We’ve failed with Vestas. We’ll never get another shot,’ Black said, switching unconsciously between ‘we’ and ‘they’. ‘We could have got a management buyout but because they shot us in the foot … we buggered it up, basically. So as well as winding us down and leaving us they left us with no way back.’
As for the Hornsea Two bid, Black was kept in the dark. The sales agent for the deal was in Germany. At the time I spoke with Black the Campbeltown factory was still officially in contention for the contract, but she already knew – accurately, as it turned out – that Campbeltown had been turned down on price grounds. ‘The official story they’re telling Joe Public in Campbeltown is: “We’re waiting to hear.” Bollocks. I know we’re not getting it.’ She’d been told that CS Wind offered towers to Siemens for Hornsea Two at £1000 a tonne. ‘They can make them for £400 a tonne in Vietnam,’ she said. In fact, as I later found out, even while the Campbeltown factory was operating, CS Wind had been selling towers for Ørsted wind farms from the Vietnamese plant as well.
Something wasn’t adding up. By all accounts, especially his own, the founder and chairman of CS Wind, Gim Seong-Gon, is a sharp businessman. Why would he open a small factory in Scotland to make something that cost two and a half times more than if he made it at his huge, long-established factory in Vietnam? ‘He was over last summer,’ Black said. ‘He just played golf. He was talking about how he was going to have a big party in Hawaii to celebrate his billion.’
Gim Seong-Gon , a graduate of Chung-Ang University in Seoul, started out in business in the 1980s in Saudi Arabiа, dealing in factory fittings for a Korean firm called Kukdong. In 1989 he came back to South Korea and set up his own company, Zhongshan Precision Industries, to make steel hardware like fire doors and handrails. The company was making industrial chimneys when the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 almost drove it to bankruptcy. Gim cast around for a new product that could be made out of steel, had good growth potential and could be made using cheap labour in China or Vietnam. He settled on wind towers; they were, he reasoned, quite like factory chimneys. He opened an office in Los Angeles and waited for the orders to roll in. But nobody wanted his wind towers, because he’d never sold one, never made one, and didn’t have a factory.
A year passed. Things looked bleak. But in early 2003, there occurred what he later described in an interview as ‘a miracle’. A Danish wind turbine maker called NEG Micon – which was about to merge with Vestas – had a contract to build a wind farm in New Zealand. It needed towers. Gim told the Danes he could make the towers in Vietnam, handy for the Antipodes. He didn’t need a factory; he’d subcontract the work to a joint venture already running in Vietnam between Posco, a big Korean steelmaker, and Lilama, a Vietnamese state-owned engineering firm. Incredibly, the Danes signed a contract with Gim in November 2003 to produce 55 towers, to be delivered in late summer 2004.
Everything went wrong. The joint venture between Posco and Lilama collapsed. Gim tried to get Lilama to make the towers anyway, but it could only manage 35. Somehow, in December 2003, Gim got the capital together to start building a factory in Phu My, about 60 km from Ho Chi Minh City. Frantic work began to build the plant and make the towers at the same time. As they cut the steel plate, they were putting together the area where the plate would be rolled into a curl; as they were rolling the plate, they were building the welding area to turn the curl into a tube. Amid all this a typhoon struck, ripping off part of the roof of the newly built paint shed, which was supposed to be tightly sealed to keep out insects. Gim’s factory didn’t produce its towers in time, and the towers he had subcontracted to Lilama were defective. Vestas wanted $2 million compensation, more than Gim’s businesses were worth.
Somehow, with a mixture of sweet talking and threats to counter-sue, Gim won a reprieve, a reduced compensation claim, and more time. He became a trusted Vestas supplier and since 2004 CS Wind factories have spread across the world, though Phu My remains the foundation. The Scottish plant, which never had many more than a hundred workers, is on a fifteen-hectare plot, and is six miles, along a difficult road, from the nearest suitable quay for shipment (the shortest route to the sea is through the golf course). The Phu My factory sprawls over an area six times the size, on seven sites, employs a thousand people, and is only a few blocks away, along wide, straight roads, from a string of large, well-equipped ports. Since CS Wind Scotland shut down, the Hanna and her sister ships Trina and Regine have made at least five deliveries from Phu My to Hull. And there have been other shipments: while I was writing this piece, I watched via a public-access webcam on the Forth Bridge as another SAL Heavy Lift vessel, the Maria, steamed up the river, in full view of the Scottish government headquarters on the Leith waterfront, on its way to discharge a load of Vietnam-made wind towers at Grangemouth.
At this point it would be fair to ask: why shouldn’t CS Wind act this way? Shouldn’t the Vietnamese have jobs too? Should Vietnam not be allowed to export manufactured goods to richer countries, as richer countries export manufactured goods to them? Sure, it’s a shame for the workers of Campbeltown; but at least the disadvantaged people of Vietnam, who suffered decades of war and the inept imposition of a Soviet-style command economy by the war’s victors, are now enjoying the fruits of a boom. Well, yes. But also very much no.
AUS military map from the late 1960s, when the American War (as Vietnamese call it) was at its height, shows Phu My as a tiny settlement, a sprinkle of buildings along a few hundred yards of highway. Between the road and the Thi Vai river was a forest of mangrove trees, rooted in saltwater channels and inlets, supporting a cosmos of plants and animals: wild cats, otters, monkeys and snakes. Through a combination of US herbicide bombing, intensive shrimp farming, land drainage, firewood-scavenging and construction, the mangroves have been eliminated, and an industrial city has taken their place.
When the North Vietnam army swept south to victory and, in 1976, declared the two halves of the country united in a single Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communist Party initially imposed full-spectrum Marxism-Leninism. Tens of thousands of businesses, mostly owned by ethnic Chinese, were closed or nationalised. A personality cult around Ho Chi Minh was promoted. Suspect servants of the American-backed South Vietnamese regime were sent to re-education camps. Southern agriculture was collectivised. Shortages followed, and hunger. Around a million Vietnamese fled the country, or died trying. In 1986, with the Cold War entering its endgame and Vietnam poor, hungry and isolated, the Communist Party began – without loosening its monopoly on power – to embrace capitalism. Two years later, Vietnam opened to foreign investment, beginning its dash to become, like a smaller China, an authoritarian capitalist paradise, a low-wage, light-touch, one-stop, one-party workshop to the world. And foreign investors were fine with that.
Modern Phu My was built around a cluster of gas-fired power stations, constructed in the early 2000s, which now generate two-fifths of Vietnam’s electricity. The power stations were built with foreign expertise, and in some cases with foreign capital; the first, built by Mitsubishi, was mainly funded by a Japanese loan. Some of the gas that powers them was discovered offshore by BP, although the British company has since been displaced by Russians and Vietnamese. There’s a glib bit of anti-green point-scoring to be done over the fact that CS Wind makes its renewable energy towers in Vietnam using electricity generated from fossil fuels. But this seems too easy. Burning gas doesn’t put as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning coal; solar and wind power are taking off in Vietnam; and there was always going to be something chicken and egg about the energy transition. More interesting is what the Phu My power stations tell us about another kind of power, political power. When that old map of Vietnam was made, the global power that connected Campbeltown and Phu My was the US military. In the 1960s the threads of control linking the RAF base at Machrihanish and the foreign army bases near Phu My (actually manned by Australian troops) ran through the Pentagon. Now the link is CS Wind, and its client Siemens, which made the gas turbines for the Phu My power stations as well as the wind turbines for Hornsea Two; which found CS Wind Scotland’s prices high and CS Wind Vietnam’s prices acceptable; which receives the towers at its base in Hull. The present-day threads of control run through the Palais Ludwig Ferdinand, the Siemens HQ in Munich.
Modern Phu My is polluted and loud with the noise of heavy trucks at all hours. A north-south highway divides the town. To the west, all the way to the river, the factories; to the east, snack bars, garages, flophouses and dormitories and, these days, some quite fancy hotels. With twelve-lane highways planned to replace the six-laners and a new international airport about to open between Phu My and Ho Chi Minh City (which many still refer to by its old name, Saigon) a property bubble has inflated. Some building plots have gone up in price by 50 per cent. Clearings have been hacked in the forested hillsides, stone illegally quarried and broad roads flung into space; in places the speculation has outreached itself, and apartment blocks lie untenanted, unplastered, unglazed. This is still a city of incomers, many of them solitary men of working age, who send money home to their families in other, less prosperous provinces of central and northern Vietnam. They wear company uniforms, sleep in company dormitories or small single rooms, and eat at restaurants serving the comfort food of their regions. But Phu My’s time as a capitalist garrison town is giving way to a new phase. At the crossroads where an archway marks the entrance to the city’s first industrial zone, the old jumble of workers’ beer shops that used to be there has been cleared away. Now there’s the office block of a Vietnamese bank and a mall with a cineplex, a cavernous gym and Korean café chains. Some migrant workers are starting to put down roots. As a migrant, you have no residential status, but if you can get the money together for a house, a resident’s permit follows, giving access to state education for your children and, in theory, healthcare. East of the highway, in a newly settled domestic world, white collar workers and migrant strivers raise families in houses with gardens. In the midst of this free market ferment a hoarding stands as lone exhortator: ‘All party bodies, government, civilians and the army are determined to successfully execute the seventh resolution of the provincial party for 2020-25.’ Somewhere the Communist Party is still in charge.
The standard shift at CS Wind in Phu My is nine and a half hours long, with any overtime paid extra. But in practice everyone seems to work a twelve-hour shift. The plant works 24/7, with shift changes at 7.30 in the morning and 7.30 in the evening, when workers in their CS Wind boiler suits, some green, some blue, some orange, stream from the gates on bicycles and scooters. Buses are laid on for those with far to go. The workers, about half of them migrants from the poor province of Nghe An in what used to be North Vietnam, have complex attitudes towards their jobs. By the standards of Phu My, CS Wind pays well and treats its workers well. It gives them two free uniforms and safety gear. CS Wind workers have pride in the firm, even as they’re conscious they’re being exploited, doing hard work in difficult conditions for low rewards. The ability to put up with this, in turn, generates a pride in being tough enough to cope, and in your success compared to those who weren’t brave enough to leave Nghe An. (Nghe An is one of the impoverished origin-provinces of the 39 Vietnamese migrants suffocated to death in a smuggler’s lorry in England in 2019.)
CS Wind will take unskilled workers and teach them how to weld. ‘You’re a low-skilled worker,’ one said. ‘You can’t ask for much.’ ‘No place treats you as well,’ said Thang, a former worker there, now a private contractor making the equivalent of $700 a month from the company. ‘Lots of workers are trained in Vietnam and sent to Canada, Taiwan and Malaysia, because they’re cheap and rarely say no to hardship … It’s better to be a servant to the smart than master of the fool.’2
Hien, a welder at the company, was born in 1987 in Hai Duong, near Hanoi, just as Vietnam began its switch to communist-run capitalism. In 1995, during one of the great state-sponsored movements of people to new economic zones, his family moved to Dak Lak, a province in the south-central part of the country, an eight-hour drive north of Phu My. He’d hoped to win a place at university in Ho Chi Minh City, but failed the entrance exam. He went to stay with an uncle in Vung Tau, not far from Phu My, and met his wife-to-be while working as a cook. He learned to weld at technical college, and in 2010, aged 23, he got chatting to a CS Wind worker on the waterfront. He went for a job and has worked there ever since. His basic salary is the dong equivalent of $400 a month, but the month before my researcher Chi Mai met him, with overtime and bonuses he earned just over $1000.3 His wife runs a nail parlour, and between the two of them, they manage to save $850 a month. They have a house on land they bought in 2012 for $3000 (it’s probably worth ten times as much now), where they live with their two children, aged ten and three.
The Korean managers were ‘warm and close’ to their Vietnamese workers, Hien said. If you worked the night shift, you got free cake and milk. His father fell seriously ill a few days after CS Wind seconded him to its Malaysian plant. He was immediately flown home at the company’s expense, and though he was too late to see his father before he died, the firm gave him a week’s paid leave before flying him back to Malaysia. Even so, ‘If I could find a job that paid just 10 million dong a month ($450), I’d move back to Dak Lak at the drop of a hat,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t need as much as I’m getting here. I’d probably live ten years longer there, not breathing in this shitty air.’ He laughed. In the rainy season, he said, the local factories took advantage of the grey skies to release their ‘dirty air’ unnoticed. But it’s hard to find a job in Dak Lak. Hien said he would put up with CS Wind for as long as it took to put his children through college. He doesn’t want them to have to live the way he does.
What, exactly, do Hien and his fellow workers have to endure? In two words: sleep deprivation. He works a twelve-hour shift every day, Monday to Sunday, for two weeks straight. Then he gets one day off. Then another two weeks of twelve-hour shifts – two weeks of days, two weeks of nights. He also has to help his wife, who has a similarly punishing schedule, look after the children. When he’s working nights, he sleeps for four hours in the afternoon, and that’s it. In theory, overtime is optional; in practice, the pace is set by the hardest workers, and the rest fear dismissal if they don’t keep up. The workers are set targets for each shift, and if they meet them early, they often try to sleep on the factory grounds, but it’s against the rules and there can be trouble if they’re caught. Sometimes they just fall asleep on the job. Welding at ground level near other people makes it easier to stay awake, because you have someone to talk to, but when you’re up on a cherry picker welding the high seams, you’re alone, and it’s easy to nod off. When you fall asleep in the middle of welding, the live rod will wander over the metal, and you have to spend hours abrading the mess off. Hien blames his stomach ulcer on anxiety and lack of sleep. In 2012 and 2016, there were strikes over pay – not organised by the official union, a quiescent arm of the state, but by the workers themselves. In 2012, management split the strikers by making each employee a separate offer. By 2016, when the bosses failed to come up with a decent reward for exhausting work on the factory’s biggest order to date, the workers had learned from their mistake. They refused to be lured into rooms for individual chats, and shut down the entire plant; any worker who tried to carry on was physically dragged out of the building. They won – if a marginally bigger pay rise and a bonus of $175 each counts as a win.
Since Hien started working at CS Wind, six people have been killed in industrial accidents, he said. One of them was a friend of his, Quang. Chi Mai asked him if this was the same Quang whose death at CS Wind in January 2018 was reported in the local press. Hien said he thought it couldn’t be, partly because he felt CS Wind ‘is superb at sweeping things like these under the carpet. Like after people died in the factory, usually elsewhere people would probably close their factory for a week and discuss stuff,’ he said. ‘But we went right back to work the next day.’ The man whose death was reported, Doan Van Quang, was the sole breadwinner in his family; he left two young children and elderly parents. CS Wind paid compensation to Hien’s friend’s family of $87,000, together with a pledge to support the children till adulthood.
I found the news reports of Quang’s death troubling; still more so when a senior CS Wind executive confirmed the details. The accident that killed him was very similar to the accident Thomas Maguire had feared in Campbeltown. Like Maguire, Quang drove a reach stacker. Like Maguire, he was told to use the stacker to move a tower section with a painting ring still attached. As in Maguire’s case, the stacker couldn’t grip the tower and ring properly. Maguire refused. Quang didn’t. The painting ring came off the tower, crashed through the safety cage and crushed Quang to death. In other words, the procedure CS Wind claimed was safe and routine when they fired Maguire in November 2018 had killed a worker in another part of the company ten months earlier.
While I was writing this, Jason Furman, the former chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, tweeted: ‘Am I the only one who doesn’t care where the wind turbines are made? I just want us to use a lot of them and the best and cheapest ones.’ Sometimes that neoliberal, free-trade attitude seems to blot out all other perspectives, now that the green energy transition has shifted from a cranky utopian dream to a great corporate enterprise. But what, then, of the idea that the green energy transition is supposed not only to resolve the climate emergency but bring honourable jobs to rich countries? The power of Siemens is considerable and wind farm developers like Ørsted are at the apex of a pyramid of control in the wind industry. But this is only part of the story. In a highly regulated, partly subsidised game, governments are still the highest level of control. The reason Gim Seong-Gon set up shop in Scotland is simple: the government encouraged him to do it. Government had done it before. CS Wind wasn’t the first wind tower factory to fail to make a go of it at Machrihanish. It was the fourth.
Campbeltown began as a 16th-century state intervention, an act of internal Scottish colonisation, part of James VI’s attempt to curtail the autonomous power and culture of the Highlands. In 1597 the king and parliament in Edinburgh decided to plant three new towns in the Highlands as bearers of Lowland Scottish values: English against Gaelic, Protestantism against Catholicism, order and industriousness against the ‘uncouth and unpleasant’ practices of the clans. One of these towns was to be in Kintyre. By the time James VI became James I of England a few years later, Archibald Campbell, 7th earl of Argyll, had glommed on to the project. The Campbells, clan chiefs who were equally at home at the Stuart court, became one of Edinburgh and London’s chief instruments in the de-Gaelicisation of Argyll. In 1609 the king gave Campbell financial incentives to ‘plant a burgh, to be inhabited by Lowland men and trafficking burgesses, within the bounds of Kintyre’. The place known as Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain was rebranded as Campbeltown. In case there was any doubt about the earl’s interpretation of Edinburgh and London’s plans to tame the Highlands, the tenant Campbell entrusted with founding the town was told not to sublet land to anyone called Macdonald, Maclean, Macleod, McAllister or McNeil.
Campbeltown had its own Phu My moment in the 1890s, when a whisky boom briefly made the town – or its distilleries – rich, polluted and teeming with workers. There were many reasons Campbeltown whisky went bust – the temperance movement, Prohibition, changing tastes – but more than anything it was a case of speculative capitalism eating itself, complete with extravagant entrepreneurs, a dodgy IPO and over-production. There are only three distilleries there now, down from more than thirty. By the late 20th century Campbeltown was getting the reputation as an employment blackspot it has had ever since. The state finds itself, as in 1609, reaching out to offer order and prosperity, only to be let down by its reliance on the agency of others. James VI offered Kintyre a prosperous model town; what it actually got was Archibald Campbell. In 2016 the Scottish government promised Campbeltown a huge economic opportunity; it got Gim Seong-Gon.
CS Wind’s tenure at Machrihanish was the most recent in a series of arm’s-length government interventions that has passed the avatars of a hundred working Highlanders on from private employer to private employer over half a century. It began in 1967, when the National Coal Board announced it was no longer prepared to bear the losses of the waterlogged coal mine near the airfield at Machrihanish. More than a hundred miners were put out of work. A new government agency with an interventionist remit, the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB), wanted to bring new industry to the area. A small shipbuilder with a yard on Eel Pie Island in London had just picked up an order to build Scottish fishing boats; the HIDB offered it money to build a new yard in Campbeltown. ‘The idea was that if they could open a shipyard they could train up these men, ex-miners, to become platers and welders and shipwrights and things like that,’ Leslie Howarth, the one-time manager of the shipyard, told me. Originally from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, he settled in Campbeltown, and that was where I found him, aged 82, his eyesight failing but his memory unimpaired, in a house with a bay window looking out on the loch.
The new shipyard made a loss on its first three boats and the HIDB persuaded a bigger shipbuilder, Scott Lithgow, to take over. In 1971 Howarth was told he should design an eighty-foot steel trawler to replace the earlier generation of wooden boats. He convinced an experienced Scottish skipper of this plan and the two of them worked out a design with a naval architect. The boats were a hit. The shipyard thrived throughout the 1970s and 1980s. At its peak it was launching a trawler every three months and employing 150 workers, some of them retrained former miners, all of them – platers, welders, joiners, electricians, engineers – paid the same wage.
Then the yard faltered. The knock-on effects of the loss of Icelandic fishing grounds, the opening-up of Britain’s fishing grounds to EU vessels, and the basic problem of too many fishermen chasing too few fish – which led to a Europe-wide state scheme to turn serviceable trawlers into scrap – ate into the order book. By 1993 the yard was eking out a living making fish-farm cages, and Howarth quit. In 1998 the yard closed. The HIDB, rebranded as Highlands and Islands Enterprise, found itself, once again, trying to help a large number of unemployed industrial workers. But the situation was worse than it had been in 1967. The three major employers in Campbeltown all shut down at around the same time: the shipyard, the RAF base and a factory making clothes for Jaeger, which, like most British clothes companies, moved production to lower-wage locations overseas. When the mine closed, there had been a rich network of British industrial companies of all sizes and types, as well as a dynamic – if often incompetent and squabbling – field of government agencies and capitalists and investors, making up an economy balanced between the self-contained and the globalised. By 1998, that was gone. Decades of half-hearted nationalisation, fanatical privatisation and unfettered globalisation had left the Highlands with few choices if it wanted to get manufacturers to set up shop.
In retirement, Howarth had tried to help salvage something from the wreckage of the shipyard. One day the privatised electricity company Scottish Power got in touch. The company’s head of innovation, Alan Mortimer, thought wind power was going to be a thing. All the companies making the running were Danish, and he and HIE wanted to persuade one of them to build a factory in Campbeltown; would Howarth go to Denmark and check them out? So it was that, five years before Gim Seong-Gon turned up in Denmark – at the very moment, in fact, when Gim’s first big venture in Korea was buckling under the stress of the Asian financial crisis – Campbeltown got a head start in the wind tower business. Vestas agreed to build a factory there to make wind towers – and, initially, to assemble the nacelles as well. The shipyard’s site wasn’t suitable, but Howarth realised that the newly vacated RAF base might work. In August 2001, the factory began operation. Just as the shipyard retrained and employed a number of miners, so the factory took on a number of men from the shipyard. ‘I went along with the Vestas people to interview them,’ Howarth said. ‘So I signed up a lot of my ex-employees. Because I knew how good they were. And they got good training out at Vestas.’
Getting Vestas to set up in Machrihanish wasn’t cheap. It didn’t pay for the factory: the Scottish government did. It cost £10.2 million, with another £668,500 in grants awarded later. That didn’t seem so bad when Vestas was paying half a million a year in rent, in addition to providing good work for about a hundred people – a significant fraction of south Kintyre’s population of fewer than seven thousand. But in 2008 Vestas pulled out, saying it was losing money.
By this time, it had become a massive global enterprise with an order book worth the best part of £6 billion. At about the same time as it pulled the plug on Campbeltown, it shut plants in Denmark and Australia, and announced that others would be opening in the US and the Isle of Wight. Knud Bjarne Hansen, head of its tower business, told the Campbeltown Courier it wasn’t shutting the factory because workers were cheaper elsewhere, or because of subsidies. The Courier’s reporting was angry and bitter. But a few months later, at Christmas, it emerged that another Danish company, Skykon, was interested in buying the factory. ‘Father Christmas arrived at Vestas … by company jet to Machrihanish instead of by sleigh,’ the Courier cheered. Alex Salmond, then Scotland’s first minister, who spent his boyhood holidays at a guesthouse in Machrihanish, swept in to seal the deal. Skykon promised hundreds of jobs; Skykon was promised another £10 million by the Scottish government. At the handover, Salmond said Scotland was taking ‘the lead in the development of clean, green energy technology, putting our nation at the forefront of global development’. Soon afterwards the local council announced it would spend another £13 million making Campbeltown’s roads and harbour ready for wind towers and other, unspecified renewables job-bringers. Kintyre, one councillor said, was ‘rapidly becoming Scotland’s powerhouse’ for renewables. ‘We are on the brink of something enormous,’ another said. And so they were. A year and a half later, Skykon went bust, followed not long afterwards by the Danish bank that backed it.
In March 2011, Salmond swept in again to announce another new buyer for the factory, the big Scottish power firm SSE. HIE ponied up another £3.4 million in grant money. An SSE executive spoke of the ‘future potential for reindustrialising the Kintyre peninsula’. When, in 2013, Nicola Sturgeon, still Salmond’s deputy, visited the new quay the council had built for renewables, she said there was ‘a real buzz about Campbeltown’. But SSE couldn’t make a go of it either. Three years later, it wanted out, and CS Wind came in, with a gold-plated deal: a contract to make a hundred offshore wind towers for Siemens; the promise of another £9 million in government funding; and free use of the factory built by the Scottish government. ‘CS Wind wants to make this factory the best wind tower supplier in Europe,’ Gim said at the handover ceremony, ‘and to show our commitment to you, we will give all employees a £500 bonus.’ He could afford to be generous. The price CS Wind paid SSE for its new acquisition was recorded in the company’s annual report as 1675 Korean won, the equivalent of £1 sterling. Gim built the towers, booked a profit, and in 2019 shut the factory. CS Wind wanted to strip out the equipment, but was prevented by the courts.
Knud Bjarne Hansen, the Vestas executive who was shown the brownfield Machrihanish site by Howarth in 1998, and who took the heat in Scotland when Vestas pulled out ten years later, had a clear view of what happened when CS Wind shut the factory, because by that time he was joint CEO of CS Wind. He sat out the pandemic near CS Wind’s headquarters in Cheonan, South Korea. On a video call, he gave me a list of reasons it didn’t work out in Kintyre. The rapid increase in the size of wind turbines, and hence wind towers, meant it had become harder and harder to manoeuvre the tower sections through Campbeltown and its small harbour. And the factory, he said, had struggled with its basic job: to make flawless towers quickly.
‘I will not blame the workers, because it’s always a two-way street,’ he told me. ‘You can always blame the management side as well. There was something rotten on both sides, no doubt. Coming in were a Korean management where you have a totally different way of managing things than you have, I would say, in the Western world, in Europe. So that’s surely part of it. But it’s also the willingness to adapt on the other side, which has maybe not been there: seeing the constraints instead of seeing the opportunities.’
Still, there was another factor, more important than either of these. Hansen confirmed what Black had already told me. CS Wind’s decision to come to Scotland, and its subsequent decision to bail, were based on an undertaking made by the UK government, Ørsted and Siemens that turned out to be worthless. Indeed, to describe it as worthless makes the deal sound too rational.
The best expression of how far and how fast the British political establishment has travelled on wind power came at the Conservative Party Conference in 2020, when Boris Johnson announced an expansion of offshore wind farms, declared that he wanted Britain to become the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’ and ridiculed the politician from his own party who had, seven years earlier, denounced wind power as a crackpot Labour idea that ‘wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding’. He didn’t name this bad prophet, but I shall. It was Boris Johnson. With the conversion to wind-love of the Brexity end of British politics, the entire governing class now supports the programme to fill the far shallows of the North Sea, the sunken prehistoric Doggerland, with gigantic wind turbines, on gigantic towers. In the lamplit uplands of our clean energy future, according to Johnson, a ‘green industrial revolution’ – neatly Anglicising and taking away from progressives the Green New Deal – will ‘create hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs’.
The North Sea mega-farms were successful in generating power long before Johnson realised he’d blundered in mocking them. And the same breast-beating, boosterish rhetoric Johnson used in his recent speech – that this power was virtuous, green, capitalist, British-made, jobs-bringing and cheap – has been used by politicians and sharp corporate execs for years. It sounds good, plausible even. But is it true? Commercial companies in a handful of countries – and Britain isn’t one of them – have a lock on the high-tech end of wind turbines and the super-specialised ships that install them. The cheapest labour and materials are in Asia. Neither of these ticks the boxes of ‘British jobs’ and ‘cheap’.
The solution that the UK government, and the devolved Scottish government, came up with was to put a ‘local content’ condition on everything the state needs to do to make a wind farm happen, like granting a licence to use a particular area of the seabed and guaranteeing a minimum price for the electricity the wind farm generates. In order to get government backing, developers have to come up with a local content ‘supply chain plan’. At the end of the last century, when Vestas agreed to set up its plant at Machrihanish, it was a political demand for local content that made SSE so keen to see the Danes come. But in those days, wind power wasn’t a multi-billion-dollar global business.
In 2017, Ørsted – under its original name of DONG Energy (Danish Oil and Natural Gas) – submitted its supply chain plan for Hornsea Two. It said it aimed to spend half the money it would cost to build the wind farm within Britain. Top of the list of ways Ørsted said it had developed ‘a strong UK supply chain’ was ‘the development and delivery’ of CS Wind’s Campbeltown factory into a plant capable of making offshore wind towers. The UK government approved the supply chain plan, and gave the wind farm the go-ahead. This year, Siemens installed the first turbines at Hornsea Two, 55 miles offshore. But in between the approval of the plan proclaiming Ørsted’s loyalty to Campbeltown and the start of work, Ørsted and Siemens gave up on the plant. Undertakings were clearly broken, yet there’s no sign Ørsted or Siemens will suffer a penalty. These immense enterprises decided that what seemed to be promises were not legally binding. Political assurances of the inevitability of green jobs for Britain turned out to be, as the climate politics researchers Stefan Aykut, Edouard Morena and Jean Foyer put it, an example of ‘incantatory governance’. The UK and Scottish governments, Black told me, ‘don’t say: “You must buy British.” They say: “We would very much like it if you would.” It’s very wide, and it’s a pain in the arse.’
One British renewables consultant told me that rather than laying out a clear system of targets and penalties to encourage local content, the government’s only means of enforcement had been to implant ‘a slight sort of anxiety’ in the minds of wind development executives. It was clear that if the government tried to take away the wind giants’ licences because they hadn’t employed enough Brits, it would end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. But, the consultant said, ‘there was still the feeling that there was something the government could do.’ The result was an unedifying scramble to patch together portfolios of local suppliers. ‘Developers who sort of felt they needed to do something – they were no doubt being hauled in front of a Scottish minister – would make some kind of a gesture of ordering a small number of units … a bit of throwing a bone.’
When SSE put the word out that it wanted the Campbeltown factory off its books, Ørsted, Siemens, and the Scottish and UK governments came up with a local content wheeze. Until then, the plant had made towers for onshore wind farms, but the action was moving offshore. Offshore towers needed to be bigger and more robust, which would require Campbeltown to acquire new machinery and new skills. The plan was that a free factory and government grants would set CS Wind on its way to retooling the Kintyre plant for offshore. It would also be given an order for a hundred offshore towers, to be used with Siemens turbines on Ørsted’s wind farms at Hornsea One and Walney, off Cumbria, at an inflated price. CS Wind would be able to use the difference between that and the market price to complete its transition to offshore tower manufacturer.
Everything went according to plan until CS Wind Campbeltown, anticipating the completion of the first job for Siemens and Ørsted, went back to try to sell more towers. It wanted the price to stay as high as before. Ørsted and Siemens reminded the company that the original price had been a one-off. Negotiations ended and Ørsted and Siemens turned to a Danish company as a stop-gap. CS Wind didn’t see how it could juice the Campbeltown plant any harder to lower the price of its towers and still make money. So it began to edge away from Scotland, and offered the wind giants more cheap towers from Vietnam instead. They accepted. The shipments from Phu My intensified, and a hundred-odd people in Kintyre lost their jobs.
Lesley Black told me that when CS Wind first arrived, ‘we were all a bit excited they were coming. Certainly the senior people in the organisation knew we were a couple of months away from closing … SSE basically said: “You’re on your own now. And there are no orders coming from onshore.” So when [CS Wind] came and said they were going to build an offshore facility … we were like: “OK, let’s do it.”’ She believes now that CS Wind never looked beyond that first, overpriced contract. ‘A hundred people, a hundred towers, was what they planned to do all along, and they never had any interest in anything else.’
Knud Bjarne Hansen disputes this. He says the company’s hopes for the workforce were never realised, that the more demanding specifications of offshore towers proved beyond them, and that the cost of making the towers, as a result, never fell as it should have. ‘Whom should we satisfy?’ he said. ‘Should we satisfy the customer, or should we satisfy the local people? You can end up in that kind of situation where it costs too much.’
A spokesman for Ørsted disputed this chronology. Ørsted had indeed helped bring CS Wind to Campbeltown, he said, with an inflated price for a first batch of towers and investment in equipment. He said the company would have been willing to buy more towers from Campbeltown but, he claimed, CS Wind had already mothballed the plant for lack of business before Ørsted made its choice for Hornsea Two.
Hansen of CS Wind told me this wasn’t the full story. Ørsted could claim to have had nothing to do with Campbeltown closing because CS Wind hadn’t dealt with them over Hornsea Two, but with the builders of the wind farm, Siemens, who at that time controlled 70 per cent of the North Sea market. Hansen was quite clear: CS Wind had offered Siemens wind towers from Scotland, and Siemens had turned them down, for one reason. ‘It ended up being purely on price.’
I asked the Scottish and British governments about what happened in Campbeltown. Neither was prepared to put up a representative to talk about it. Both claimed there were mechanisms in place to penalise deviations from local content promises. The British government intends to bring in a new rule that will allow it to impose a crippling penalty – cancellation of the guaranteed minimum price for a wind farm’s electricity – if a developer doesn’t provide the green British jobs it’s supposed to.
And looked at from Ørsted’s point of view, what would have happened if the British or Scottish government had forced it to take CS Wind’s towers? From 2016 to 2019, CS Wind had an absolute monopoly as the sole builder of offshore wind towers in the UK. If Ørsted had been compelled to use them, CS Wind could have charged what it liked. Green British jobs would have been protected, but would the energy still have been cheap?
The British government has committed to the radical promise of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and filling the North and Irish Seas with wind farms is essential to that. But it’s not only the ‘cheap’, ‘green’ and ‘British’ aspects that make you think Britain is, once again, trying to have its cake and eat it. It’s also the contradiction between Britain the beacon of free markets and open global competition, and Britain the trade fortress, exercising protectionism in its own workers’ interests. The government says different things to different audiences. In response to a story in the Guardian about complaints in Europe that Britain’s local content rules for wind farms could be in breach of the Brexit deal, a UK government spokesman said: ‘There are no mandatory requirements for supply chains to use UK products.’ The same government department had made it clear to me a few days earlier that it had every intention of taking the opposite approach.
When I went back to the government for a resolution of the contradiction, a spokesman explained that it wasn’t the government which came up with local content targets for wind farms: the wind farm developers did that all by themselves, unprompted by politicians. Hard-nosed, profit-seeking Danish or German companies, in other words, finding in their hearts such a special love for British workers that they would pay over the odds for their labour. And the threats to take away their subsidies? Well, if commercial companies were generous enough to make such promises, it was the least the UK government could do to make sure they kept them.
‘To achieve net zero by 2050 is going to require an enormous investment in all aspects of energy, including a lot of new offshore wind,’ Ronan Lambe, an energy lawyer with the UK firm Pinsent Masons, told me. ‘Is it realistic to think you can achieve that and impose very high thresholds of local content? I’m not sure it is. I think the two are somewhat in conflict.’ Up to now, the government’s ‘slight sort of anxiety’ tactic, together with thick welcome mats of cash, has had some effect. Siemens built a factory in Hull to make the immense blades, each as long as a football pitch, that catch the wind at sea. Vestas has a blade factory on the Isle of Wight; the American company GE has said it will build one on Teesside. Odd as it may sound, it wouldn’t be surprising if CS Wind were to return to the UK with a new tower factory, with fresh government money, on a site closer to the North Sea wind farms, closer, perhaps, to the battleground parliamentary constituencies in the North-East. A British civil servant told Black that the government thought Britain should have its own tower factory, adding meaningfully ‘in the right place’. I asked Hansen about this. He said tersely: ‘Talks are ongoing.’ And would CS Wind give up the Campbeltown factory to someone else? ‘Nobody has come with an offer,’ he said. ‘If CS Wind can’t get it to operate and earn money, my take is nobody else can.’
The odds were against the Campbeltown factory from the start. It was set up to make small towers for onshore wind turbines. But onshore wind faced local hostility in Britain. Tourism, retirees and second-homers are the first industry in Kintyre. Front-page stories in the Campbeltown Courier about job crises at the Machrihanish factory alternated with articles about campaigns to stop wind farms. One was led by the Machrihanish golf course. It’s owned by the Massachusetts firm Southworth Development, which specialises in private gated golf-mansion ‘communities’ in places like the Bahamas and Virginia horse country. In the early 2010s enmity towards wind power became almost as important a rallying cry for Ukip and the nationalist wing of the Conservatives – which included Johnson – as enmity towards the European Union. In 2015, as part of an effort to appease his enemies on the right, David Cameron’s incoming Conservative administration announced it was scrapping subsidies for onshore wind farms.
When the Campbeltown factory tried to switch to the more politically palatable offshore wind towers, it had to deal with the towers getting big, then huge. The latest generation, Hansen said, are too large to be moved through the town and port. It’s no comfort for former workers in Campbeltown that Hansen predicts a shortage of wind towers by the middle of the decade; it doesn’t look like they’ll be made in Argyll.
Still harder to swallow, in retrospect, are the boosterish, infantilising comments made by politicians, who talked about the Campbeltown factory being an example of Scotland leading the world in green energy technology. A wind tower, as Gim Seong-Gon realised two decades ago, is nothing more complicated than a welded, painted steel tube. ‘The opening and closing of tower factories happens quite often,’ the renewables consultant I spoke to told me. ‘It’s a fairly precarious business, and I even wonder why anybody does it, because it just feels to me they never last very long.’ Most of the complexity and difficulty lies in the nacelles, with their intricate gearboxes and turbines, their data processors and cabling. These aren’t made or designed in Britain; apart from Vestas, Siemens-Gamesa, GE and the Chinese company Goldwind, very few firms make them. The manufacture of nacelles has more in common with aircraft engines than with turning flat steel plates into cylinders. Even the wind towers CS Wind makes aren’t designed by the company. ‘We didn’t hold that intellectual property,’ Black said. ‘It was Vestas or Siemens that owned it. The nacelles are the thing that make the turbine. There’s no way they’ll ever be made in Britain. They’re made in Denmark, because they keep the intellectual property to themselves. Anyone does.’4
The equivalent of almost all Scotland’s electricity is now supplied by renewables, and when demand is low and the weather blustery, wind turbines generate two-thirds of the wattage Britain needs. You might accept that Britain has ceded tech sovereignty to overseas multinationals, and say, well, let them at least be competent and effective ones, like Siemens and Vestas. But even as I write this, it has a hollow ring. Suppose I make the distinction between a false populist portrayal of the wind energy revolution as a triumph of national ingenuity and my own understanding of it as a vital endeavour engaging the whole species – one in which the greater ingenuity, foresight and can-do spirit has, this time, been shown by the Danes. The trouble is that these narratives aren’t very far apart. If the Boris Johnson version is neo-aristocratic, boasting of improvements to the landed estate that is Britain, mine is neo-romantic: humanity, and the version of nature we know, may yet be saved! The trouble is that the aristocrat and the romantic have much in common. Each tends to overlook those who do the spade-work, those whose hand holds the welding rod. It shouldn’t be more important that the North Sea wind farms get built than that some of their towers are made by low-paid labourers working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week; and yet the immense utopian project to decarbonise human activity forges ahead, while the equally utopian project to end the setting of ‘low income country’ worker against ‘high income country’ worker barely exists. The mad dream of a green energy transition might just be starting to come true, with much of the credit due to stubborn activists, clever engineers and a handful of far-sighted policymakers. But it is also happening for the unlikely reason that it has been redefined as a global capitalist-consumerist project. It realises utopian goals while simultaneously keeping stock markets ticking over, making the rich richer and spreading a general sense of virtue. The system has been able to turn the green energy transition into a set of products – electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines –but the transition to a world of better-treated workers involves systemic changes that are the antithesis of commodification.
The CS Wind origin story Gim Seong-Gon tells has a strange resonance with another more famous Korean business story. In 1971, Chung Ju Yung, the head of a Korean construction company called Hyundai, then little known outside its homeland, came to London. He wanted Barclays to lend him the money to build a shipyard. Like Gim trying to convince the Danes to buy wind towers from him when he had no experience, no towers and no factory to make them, Chung struggled to persuade the bank to put up the cash when he’d never built a ship in his life. Like Gim, Chung talked the bankers round. One of the British shipbuilders he hired as a consultant was Scott Lithgow. Now Hyundai has the largest shipyard in the world, and Scott Lithgow is no more.
The difference between Gim and Chung’s stories is that Chung built his shipyard in Korea, whereas Gim’s whole plan was predicated on using cheap Vietnamese labour. CS Wind still doesn’t have a wind tower factory in Korea itself. The Vietnamese workers are paid less than those in Gim’s other factories, work brutally long hours and are embedded in a social system that obliges them to fend for themselves to a far greater degree than workers in countries like Britain, with its 20th-century social democratic legacy. The competition between Vietnamese and Scottish workers in CS Wind’s global factory isn’t just a matter of pressure being put on the Scots to work longer hours, for less money, with less concern for safety – the levelling down of pay and conditions. The entire structure of taxation and state-funded services is involved. When Lesley Black had her stroke, an air ambulance flew her to hospital in Glasgow, where she was treated for eight days by the NHS. Hien and his wife in Phu My have to put money aside for medical emergencies. In theory, state healthcare is free; in practice, it’s hard to get good treatment. CS Wind might pay a worker’s medical bills, or it might not: there’s no certainty. Black lamented that her two daughters had no reason to stay in Campbeltown when they left school, but the school was good, and the family doesn’t have to pay for it. School is supposed to be free in Vietnam, too, yet Hien and his wife pay for their children’s education. When Vestas quit Campbeltown, it opened an office in Warrington, and for several years Black endured her own version of the journey from Nghe An to Phu My, commuting from Argyll to Cheshire, a seven-hour journey each way – three weeks in England, one week at home. But the British system is not only far richer than the Vietnamese one; it is also, for the time being, better at spreading the wealth around.
Long ago, socialists agreed that the struggle against workers’ exploitation had to be international. One manifestation of the ideal, while it lasted, was the Communist University of Labourers of the East, which operated in Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s. Probably its most famous alumni were Deng Xiaoping, who plugged China into global consumer capitalism, and Ho Chi Minh, who gave his name posthumously to a city that is now one of global consumer capitalism’s great foundries. After the Second World War, Perry Anderson wrote in 2002, the historical links between capital and the national, on one hand, and labour and the international, on the other, were broken. ‘Nationalism becomes predominantly a popular cause, of exploited and destitute masses, in an intercontinental revolt against Western colonialism and imperialism. Internationalism, at the same stroke, starts to change camps – assuming new forms in the ranks of capital. This was to be a fateful mutation.’
Not long ago a pair of American wind tower makers, banding together as the Wind Tower Trade Coalition, complained to the US Commerce Department that CS Wind Vietnam was dumping towers on the US market – selling them in the US for less than they sold for in Vietnam, thus unfairly harming American businesses. The coalition won its case, and the government slapped hefty tariffs on CS Wind. The circumstances of the case were odd: the US government never actually found out how much CS Wind towers cost in Vietnam, and punished the company, in the end, because it was late filing some paperwork. Why, I wondered, was it necessary to try and prove that CS Wind was dumping towers? Wasn’t it more likely the towers were fairly priced, and if CS Wind was guilty of anything it was what the French call ‘social dumping’, where products made by workers on low wages, with weak social protections, destroy jobs filled by workers on decent wages, and eat away at their communally funded health, education and welfare systems?
Dan Pickard, the coalition’s lawyer, recognised the line of thought. ‘Most of my clients who are bringing anti-dumping cases … they’re not abandoning US production operations to chase labour around the world,’ he told me. ‘They’re in favour of fair rules for international co-operation. The majority of my clients have thought: “I’m producing in the United States, and I’m paying my guys a fair working labour rate, and I’m paying my environmental costs … And the dumpers aren’t.” Somehow that should be factored into the analysis and I don’t think they know how and, quite frankly, I’m not sure anybody knows exactly how that should be factored in. But it strikes them as unfair.’
Hansen claimed – I’ve seen the same figures elsewhere – that labour costs make up only about 5 per cent of the cost of a wind tower, while 80 per cent comes from the cost of the raw steel, which is cheaper in Asia than in Europe. Leaving aside the issue of how much low pay and poor conditions contribute to the cost of the steel, if labour costs are such a small fraction of the price of a wind tower, why are Vietnamese workers stuck with an 84-hour week? ‘It’s their way to gain overtime, that is, earn more money,’ Hansen said. ‘You still have to see Vietnamese society as a place where everyone likes to live a little better than their neighbours and with CS Wind, they have this opportunity … Workers are not forced to work fourteen days in a row. They accept it, due to the earnings. But today the whole habit [concerning] working hours is very much on our internal screen, as you are fully right, most accidents happen after hour ten.’ Since the deaths of workers at the Vietnam plant, he said, health and safety rules had been tightened up, and he was trying to change CS Wind’s management style. ‘We can’t allow fatal accidents at all,’ he said.
There’s an argument that social protectionism hurts workers in export industries in low-income countries like Vietnam whose fortunes are on the up. ‘You say you’re an internationalist,’ it goes. ‘You say you’re concerned about workers losing their jobs in Britain and working ridiculous hours in Vietnam, and what does it come down to? British jobs for British workers, closing markets and lost jobs for the Vietnamese.’ The trouble is that to treat the issue as one of good/bad for British workers and good/bad for Vietnamese workers is to obscure the fundamental question of whether something is good or bad for people. It is hard to find an excuse to treat stories like this one as anything other than a challenge to organised labour to go global. A world factory demands a world trade union. The cry that higher wages mean higher unemployment is the oldest scare in capital’s playbook. And if we call a global minimum wage – or a global maximum working week, or a global minimum healthcare standard – pie in the sky, we’re saying that the green energy transition is the possible, necessary utopia, and fair pay and conditions the impossible, unnecessary one.
Both journeys have a terribly long way to go. The Phu My tower workers don’t talk about climate change much, and when I asked Hien via video call about Vietnamese and British workers competing against each other within CS Wind, he said it was too big a question. ‘It never occurred to me before,’ he said, ‘that workers in the West are unemployed.’
Listen to James Meek discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.