The explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which led to the deaths of eleven workers, has put a global spotlight on safety practices and workers’ rights in the offshore industry. On Deepwater Horizon there was no union. The offshore industry in the US is rife with union-busting and other abuses. Only a strong workers’ movement can create a truly safe offshore industry.
Jake Molloy is regional organiser for offshore energy for the RMT which, through its Oil Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) section, organises offshore workers in the British North Sea. He spoke to Solidarity.
What is the major improvement to health and safety that union organisation brings?
Workforce involvement: the ability of the workforce to influence the health and safety agenda. They fact that we’re still debating this twenty years after Piper Alpha shows some of the shortcomings in the industry. We have elected safety reps and safety committees offshore, but their impact is limited by the industrial relations situation. There are obvious limits to how far they can take that role without jeopardising their employment. There are obvious measures in place to deter the reps from exercising their roles and powers to the extent envisaged by Lord Collins [who led the inquiry into the Piper Alpha case, where 167 workers were killed when an offshore platform caught fire in July 1988].
There’s a lot going on but there are common threads: work time, the right to paid leave, the right to adequate rest periods. Starting 13 June OILC and Unite will have representation at the Court of Session in the fifth stage of a seven year legal battle to secure protection from the Working Time regulations, which were only extended offshore 2003.
The industry has spent millions in legal fees to prevent workers from enjoying the protection of the regulations.
It’s about excessive hours. A lot of workers, especially those involved in maintaining the wells — a lot of these guys get little or no time off at all. They’ll go off for 21 days, stay home for one or two days and then go off to another platform for another 21 days.
A lot of the drilling work is extremely hazardous and physically and mentally demanding. And yet not one drilling worker has seen an hour reduced on their exposure time offshore. The industry is fighting tooth and nail to prevent regulation having any effect.
The other major issue is the physical integrity of the installations. A lot of them are past their sell-by dates and literally falling apart.
I’ve spoken to US oilworkers and the very mention of the word union will get you thrown off the job. It was like that here before 2000. There was no union recognition, and what we called a “kick-ass mentality” — you never answered back. The Employment Relations Act brought some slight changes. But to the majority of oilworkers, it’s still a regime where you can’t challenge the employer.
If you mention a union, you’re just run off. You can’t even make a claim for unfair dismissal. A lot of it is done through agencies in the US, so you can’t easily establish jurisdiction in such a case. In the UK the use of agencies has grown too, and the ability of the worker to counter that is severely curtailed.
NRB [Not Required Back] is the UK equivalent of being run off. It’s not even a letter. It’s just when you call up your employer to get your hours, and you’re told that the employer has been informed by the client that you are NRB. Here, you at least get redeployed to a different installation, but your previous position is ended because of the attitude of a given manager. In the States if you get run off you’re run off.
How is the Norwegian section of the North Sea oilfield better organised?
It’s a cultural issue. The attitude there is that people come before profits. The legislation which the Norwegians enjoy means that they can take corporations on, and influence and retain the powers and functions they enjoy including the ability to shut an installation down if they feel it is unsafe. In the UK, two reps can make a complaint, but no UK safety rep can do what a Norwegian rep can do, which is to instruct a company to shut an installation down. It’s rarely used.
They fought for it, hard. In the 1970s it came to baseball bats on the heli-decks in the fight to get recognition. But soon after that the government took notice.
Is it time for baseball bats on the heli-decks in the UK?
I’d like to think there is a bit of fight left in the UK workforce to improve things, but because of inter-union politics and because of the tactics employed to divide and conquer the workforce, with different rates of pay and work times, the employer have done a job on the British workforce. So it will take a great deal of organising and a significant sea-change in inter-union relations to bring about improvements for British offshore workers
The Employment Relations act was brought in on the 6 June 2000. 48 hours before the act passed, Amicus entered into partnership relations with the employer. That set back organising on the oil platforms severely. You get handed a membership card for a union selected by the employer — are you going to trust that union and join? Not one worker has been offered the chance to take part in a ballot to decide which union they would like to see on their platform.
What are your thoughts on the situation in Colombia?
What’s going on in Colombia is absolutely outrageous, and I’d like to see pressure brought on BP to withdraw from that region until democracy is restored. No corporation should underwrite human rights abuses of that nature.