PRESSURE is mounting on Highland Council to explain the circumstances behind a £1.5 million recycling contract "fiasco" which left 31 stunned Easter Ross workers jobless without any advance notice weeks before Christmas.
MSP John Finnie has slammed the local authority’s "sub-standard" response to the affair which centres on a recycling contract which had been held by Alness-based Munro Construction – who say they were only told two hours before it was due to expire that it had been placed with another firm.
Shocked workers left in limbo are lobbying the Scottish Government to intervene and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is also demanding answers from the council.
French-firm SUEZ was awarded the contract "in line with procurement procedures and best value principals", says Highland Council, which says the new contractor can process the blue bin waste at a lower cost "and therefore provide better value for the public".
Green Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie has slammed the procurement process "a shambles" and welcomed the intervention of Highlands and Islands Enterprise which is working with employees who have been in touch through Citizens Advice Bureaux for help.
But he said: "The First Minister is rightly seeking an explanation from the Highland Council as to why only a couple of hours’ notice was given that the contract would not be renewed. This is an issue I have raised personally with the council yet their response is far from enlightening.
"In his substandard response Highland Council’s chief executive has described discussions between the council, Munro’s and SUEZ as confidential. He also states that no equalities impact assessment, traffic impact assessment or environmental impact assessment were carried out when taking this decision. This leaves more questions than it answers.
"Highland Council also state that they will work with partners to mitigate any impacts on the employees. I am at a loss to see how redundancy can be mitigated. The council must act promptly to explain how this mess has come about, ensure those who have lost their jobs are adequately supported and assess their practises to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again."
Munro Construction managing director, Billy Munro, told the Ross-shire Journal: "for the past six months we had been trying to get Highland Council to tell us their intentions at the expiry date of November 18. We wanted to know if we would get an extension or if it would go out to tender. Not knowing put us in a difficult situation. It meant we couldn’t conduct the TUPE system about transfer of employment until we knew what was happening.
"About two weeks ago we wrote again. We said that if they were going to a re-tender, we would re-tender. We had a five-year proposal which would have saved Highland Council thousands of pounds."
Mr Munro said his son received an email from Highland Council at 10.10pm on Friday, November 17, less than two hours before the contract was due to expire to say it was not being extended.
"The email wasn’t picked up until the following morning, which is lucky as it’s not a working day, and then on Monday we had men coming in at 6am expecting to start work. We had to tell them there were no jobs as the contract had been transferred to SUEZ."
Mr Munro said the company’s employment lawyers had been probing the situation trying to get answers. Lawyers want to know why the company wasn’t allowed to re-tender for the work "which would have been the proper process".
He said his company had carried out work for Highland Council since 2010 and "we have never received any complaints over the years".
He described the 31-strong workforce, including a number of Polish nationals who have made their lives in Scotland, as "the best I’ve ever had". He said it was "an absolute disgrace" how they had been treated.
The company has invested millions, he said, in the equipment required for the recycling contract for an area covering Fort William to Caithness.
He said: "It’s a loss of turnover we could have done without, especially after investing heavily. The most important thing is the people These are guys with families, rent and mortgages and bills to pay."
He said he wanted to know why the contract wasn’t put out to tender, why Munro’s five-year offer was apparently ignored and how long the SUEZ contract runs for. In addition, he wants to know what the TUPE arrangements are.
One staff member Dariusz Kupek, who has lived in Scotland for 10 years and is married with two children, said: "The situation that met me and my colleagues is unpleasant. I think that any normal person would not be happy with this. Today you work, tomorrow you do not have a job anymore."
Highland Council was approached for comment but had not responded as we went to press.