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Surface tension—the battle against the North Sea oil bosses

This article is over 7 years, 9 months old
Offshore oil workers have a tough life—and to keep up profits bosses are out to make it even tougher. But a new wave of strikes could put a stop to that. Raymie Kiernan spoke to trade unionists organising on the North Sea rigs
Issue 2514
Tensions between workers and bosses are coming to the surface in the North Sea
Tensions between workers and bosses are coming to the surface in the North Sea (Pic: Richard Child/Flickr)

Offshore oil and gas rigs are remote, hostile environments. Some in the North Sea are huge installations with up to 200 people. Their size and scale are enormous—a rig is a harbour, an airport, a hotel and a refinery. Workers get there by helicopter.

They have to undergo basic survival and emergency training beforehand. They wear at least three layers of clothing to fly, then a diving suit and life jacket, before being packed into a chopper like sardines.

Everything points to disaster but this is how they get to work.

Once offshore they’re stuck on a hunk of metal surrounded by hundreds of miles of open sea. Getting on with people helps when you spend half your life sharing a room.

It’s big business (see below) with 24-hour production. But workers disrupted that last week with a one-day strike—the first North Sea strike in 28 years.

The RMT union’s offshore organiser Jake Molloy said strikers “are to be applauded for their strength, spirit and principles”.

He added, “This is an unforgiving industry with a seriously bad record when it comes to any form of workforce challenge.”

Around 400 Wood Group workers are engaged in a series of strikes on seven Shell platforms against 30 percent pay cuts and other attacks. One attack increased their two-week shifts to three weeks. In reality many workers are stuck on the rigs even longer.

The RMT and Unite union members plan a two-day walkout on Thursday and Friday of this week. Molloy said, “Striking on an offshore installation is a unique exercise which has no comparison with any other industrial sector.

“There’s no collective grouping in the form of mass meetings, no ‘march through the gates’ or establishing a picket line. There’s no place and little point to waving flags or displaying placards—as there’s nobody there to see them.”

Instead workers gather in an assigned area, such as a games room, cinema or meeting room, for the duration of their 12-hour shift (see picture below). 

Oil firms enjoyed mega-profits while prices were sky high and they are still making millions.

But since 2014 they have used a downturn as an excuse to go on the offensive. Conditions have been attacked and tens of thousands of jobs axed.

There was little or no resistance initially and, with sweetheart agreements with the oil firms’ contractors, no real leadership from the recognised unions.

But Wood Group workers decided it was time to fight. They’re maintenance workers, so their strikes will not necessarily hit production. But the impact will be felt in a further backlog of maintenance work, compounding an already desperate situation.

Shock statistics from Oil & Gas UK last year exposed that North Sea platforms were, on average, 8,000 hours behind schedule on maintenance of “safety-critical equipment”. The figure at the start of 2009 was 2,000 hours.

And this is on infrastructure that is largely past its use by date.

Oil & Gas UK chief Deirdre Michie thinks workers and bosses “all need to pull together” so the industry can “restore competitiveness”.

In the past two years this has meant sacking experienced workers, deskilling the industry and undermining safety. Oil and gas barons are prepared to sacrifice lives to line their pockets.

New work patterns are part of the problem.

Bosses had promised that 21 days would be the maximum time offshore. Yet it’s common for workers to be there for closer to a month.

A 2016 study for the trade union Offshore Coordinating Group (OCG) highlighted “significant physical and psychological demands” on workers.

It found, “Shift work offshore is linked with poorer sleep quality, impaired alertness and decreasing task performance, with higher rates of accident and injury.” And this was drawn from evidence based on two-week “tours” offshore.

These conditions lay behind the strikes, which have won support from other workers.

Bernie, a Unite member, works in another oil field. He said, “There are a lot of Wood Group boys on my rig and they were sending messages of support to the strikers, as we all were.

“We’re really glad they’ve taken this action. Management cannot take the piss like this. Enough is enough!”

Bernie added that the Wood Group workers where he is show that organising isn’t always easy. “I’m trying to get them to demand union representation but it’s like trying to pull teeth,” he said.

“A lot of them have only ever worked offshore and have always been cosseted with good times. Now it’s getting tougher, those of us with experience of bad management onshore are having trouble trying to convince them that we need unions.”

It’s not an uncommon experience but it can be overcome.

Harry, an RMT activist and offshore worker, explained some of the difficulties of “organising the unorganised”. He said, “Traditionally the North Sea is a mine field. Lack of access to worksites for union

officials, sweetheart deals and competitive trade unionism hold back the membership.”

But Harry argued that the current Wood Group dispute “highlights the importance of a true rank and file influence”. Some 20 months ago a group of union activists decided to start organising resistance to the bosses’ offensive.

“When we started we had nothing but an idea of a Facebook page to try and bridge the geographical gap between workers offshore,” Harry said.

Harry is inspired by OilC. This rank and file coordinating body across unions led a wave of rig strikes and occupations after the Piper Alpha disaster (see below).

He said if workers hadn’t put pressure on the unions to come together there would be no Offshore Coordinating Group (OCG). “We had collective courage to make that happen,” he said.

An unofficial downing of tools met Wood Group’s announcement of redundancies earlier this year. The current series of strikes have been organised through the OCG. It is a huge step forward. And bosses fear it could be contagious.

Harry said the last few months have shown what can be achieved and is a lesson to workers offshore.

“You read about big oil losses and it seems all doom and gloom,” he said. “But a coordinated approach means the future is bright for the offshore worker—if they want it, and are prepared to make a stand for it.”

No gloom in the boardroom

The financial pages of the press were rather down on the oil companies’ second quarter profits last week. It was all about plummets, drops and tumbles.

Shell’s profits were “down” to £800 million—for April, May and June.

“The results added to the gloom hanging over the global oil majors after weaker-than-expected numbers from BP and Statoil earlier in the week,” moaned the Financial Times newspaper.

Despite all the “disappointment” Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden’s total compensation for salary, bonus, pension and “tax equalisation” last year was over £4 million.

Another 11 directors trousered nearly £6 million between them.

It was their reward for cutting “costs” by 10 percent —6,500 jobs were slashed in 2015.

But Shell will not cut its shareholders’ dividend and hasn’t done so in over half a century. The firm accounts for a tenth of all dividends paid out by British companies.

The payout for the last three months was over £2.8 billion—£356 a second.

Shell contractor Wood Group’s slash and burn policies to protect profits are at the centre of the current strikes in the North Sea.

Some offshore workers face their third round of redundancies in a year. Last year Wood Group slashed around 8,000 jobs.

Its profits were £320 million in 2015 and it expects to make £261 million

How long until next disaster?

Instead of organising picket lines, workers occupy a room in the rig for 24 hours
Safety was a big part of why workers struck for 24-hours last week 

Some 167 people were killed when a fire broke out on the Piper Alpha oil platform in 1988 after a gas leak.

A leak over five times greater was hushed up in the North Sea last year, one worker told Socialist Worker.

The incident occurred on BP’s Etap (Eastern Trough Area Project) platform. 

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) slapped an improvement notice on the oil giant over a “suspected” leak last October. It said BP “failed to take appropriate measures to prevent the uncontrolled release of flammable gas”.

The worker said the press “didn’t really reflect the fact that, had it gone up, our folks would have seen it back home”. ETAP is over 100 miles east of Aberdeen.

“This was a 260kg release—Piper Alpha was only 45kg,” the worker added. HSE told Socialist Worker the gas release was part of an “ongoing investigation”.

Bosses’ cuts create potentially lethal conditions.

Shell was served with an improvement notice for an incident on 1 January this year. HSE said a gas leak “resulted in the formation of a potential gas cloud within approximately three metres of five workers”.

This resulted “in risk of their injury from fire and/or explosion”.

Another notice was served on Shell on 1 April after it “failed to implement arrangements for the safety of employees”. There was “potential exposure to injury from unignited gas or fire/and or explosion”.

In December last year a record £1.125 million fine was issued to Total for failures that led to the largest release of gas on record from the Elgin platform.

The “sudden and uncontrolled release of gas” occurred in March 2012. It took 51 days to bring the leak under control.

The largest marine oil spill in history took place at BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

It caused untold environmental damage. Five million barrels of oil were spilled over the 87 days it took to contain it.

Eleven workers went missing following the explosion and were never found.

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