Plans by offshore oil and gas barons to impose worse working conditions make another Piper Alpha disaster more likely, say trade unionists in the industry.
Longer shift rotations, deskilling and the pursuit of profit over safety are creating conditions that could see a repeat of the 1989 oil rig fireball that killed 167 workers.
The disaster sent shockwaves through Britain and sparked a major struggle for better safety and union recognition offshore.
“If you let your standards slip eventually something bad is going to happen,” rig worker and GMB union steward Colin told Socialist Worker.
“There have been some near misses in the last few years with gas releases but it has been hushed up.”
Harry, also an offshore worker and a member of the RMT/OilC union, added, “The last 20 years of work that’s gone into safety since Piper Alpha has been blown in the space of eight months.”
Since a slump in oil prices last year bosses argue that “spiralling costs” mean a “painful adjustment” is needed for the industry to survive. But their profits are to remain sky high.
When oil prices were over $100 a barrel the bosses splashed cash on themselves.
Now the price has more than halved they want workers to pay the price.
Company bosses point to “independent” analysis showing that costs in Britain have risen more than in other regions of the world over the last 15 years.
But workers’ pay and benefits have crept up at little more than inflation during that time.
“This is just an opportunist move by the operators to line their shareholders’ pockets by attacking the terms and conditions of the workforce,” Harry insisted.
Creating the impression of imminent collapse has been bosses’ justification for slashing 15 percent of jobs and changing working patterns.
A new “equal time” shift pattern is being imposed—three weeks on, three weeks off.
Workers are furious. Harry explained, “They had told us that two on and three off was a safer way of working. They said employees would get a work life balance and that it was unsafe to work 21 days.”
But working 21 days is precisely what firms are now imposing.
Colin said, “They are buying guys’ service off them to force them onto three and three—finishing people up and starting some again within two weeks. And with redundancy capped at £475 a year guys might have up to ten years’ service but it costs less than £5,000 to get rid of them.”
Some companies have gone to ridiculous lengths to justify the shift changes with one even claiming that workers get a better sleep offshore. Harry said that was “bullshit”.
He said, “I think a lot of folk don’t realise what we sacrifice both physically and mentally all for the sake of providing for our family. It’s a hustle and bustle environment, a 24-hour operation. It’s rare that there’s nothing going on outside.
“Working 21 days is hazardous. Folk get tired and there will be accidents because people will take their eye off the ball.”
Offshore workers have a tough life. The work is demanding and the hours and long. Harry said, “Some guys are in the pump room mixing chemicals to go down the hole while they’re drilling.
“Others can be in the cement hut getting their formulas together for cement plugs because the rig they are on is abandoning a well. They can be on the drill floor pouring cement for eight hours. Others could be sweeping water off the decks for six hours.
“You could be out on deck in June and it’s roasting hot and you’re all sunburnt, or out in December and it’s minus 15 with snow coming down.
“Scaffolders can be erecting towers on the drill floor or attached to a harness over the side of the rig.”
With so much going on with heavy machinery and hazardous materials the dangers are clear.
Colin agreed, “You’re working, living and eating on a live bomb. You can’t go out for a walk at night time for a bit of fresh air—you can only go outside on a work permit. They control you 24 hours a day, 14 days a month. Now they want to control you 21 days a month.”
He argues that deskilling also increases the risk of accidents.
“Years ago these companies would get the best tradesmen they could, but now they’ll take a domestic plumber and give him a job as a pipe fitter.
“But would you bring a joiner in to fit a new bathroom at home? No, so why are they getting a plumber to fit heavy wall pipes?”
Workers are looking for the unions to work together and give a lead.
Harry said, “These unions sit on industry bodies—they should fight for only doing 14 days offshore. In Holland and Germany you’ll do 14 days and that’s it, they’ll get you off.”
“A lot of people feel like there’s nothing they can do to fight it and they just have to accept it,” he added.
Shamefully some union officials are not helping to dispel this myth. There is a long history of sweetheart “partnership” deals. These may secure a level of recognition but at the cost of gutted organisation.
Socialist Worker has been told of rotten votes nodded through by the union machine.
In the wake of Piper Alpha, and 20 years of inaction by union officials, unofficial workers’ organisation across the unions launched a wave of action.
Beginning with action short of strikes it culminated in strikes and occupations involving 10,000 workers at its height.
Union officials then hid behind Tory anti-union laws as an excuse for inaction instead of backing the struggle at the crucial moment.
“There hasn’t really been a proper fight for conditions offshore since,” said Colin.
But new disputes are brewing as bosses go on the offensive.
The Unite, GMB and RMT/OilC unions represent the vast bulk of jobs that are done offshore from caterers to drillers and divers.
Between them they have around 12,000 members.
But there are separate agreements depending on the sector and different unions recognised in each.
Throughout this year Unite and GMB have held talks with the bosses’ Offshore Contractors Association (OCA). It made an offer that included the new equal time shifts. Both unions recommended the offer.
But Unite members rejected it by two thirds in July, while GMB accepted it.
Unite is by far the bigger of the two recognised unions but RMT/OilC, despite representing thousands of workers affected by the agreement, isn’t recognised by the OCA.
Workers are now demanding a strike ballot.
The Catering Offshore Trade Association (COTA) has reneged on paying the second year of a two-year pay deal. A ballot for industrial action is due to close on 21 October. A strike by caterers has the potential to bring a shutdown—after all, everyone offshore has to eat.
One problem with the current setup is that the unions negotiate with the contractors, not their paymasters—the big oil firms who have always ruthlessly opposed the unions. And rivalry between unions has also been a block to effective action.
But again workers have started to organise unofficially across the unions, this time under the banner of “3 and 3 it’s not for me”. Although still in an embryonic stage it has growing support.
Militants are using the network to encourage offshore workers to opt in to working 48 hours a week.
“A lot of guys who have done it said the employer was a bit difficult about it at first but realise it’s your legal right to opt in or opt out as you please,” said Harry.
He argues the strategy can secure jobs and minimise redundancies because certain weather delays and training courses mean that some workers are going to exhaust their 48 hours.
“Therefore you would have to keep them at home on pay and have somebody else to go out and cover the hours that they are not able to work.
“It can be a fantastic tool to counter the bosses that’s not going to cost anyone anything,” he said.
“But it’s just a short term fix.”
But the key demand is to support the call by RMT/OilC for a new federation of all the unions to deal directly with the oil firms. “It’s the only way forward,” said Colin.
“The unions shout all these slogans but a lot of these appointed officials aren’t practising what they preach.
“They think they’ve a job for life—they’ve got the car, the credit card, they can stay in the best hotels and get about eight weeks holiday a year.
“If we don’t pull our finger out there won’t be any unions left in 20 or 30 years’ time. The unions need to get a real good look at themselves—this is people’s lives they’re dealing with here.”