There is no doubt that the British oil and gas industry faces one of its greatest challenges since the 1980’s. However, Unite argues that the solution to that challenge is not found by making workers redundant or by changing offshore shift rotas to a punishing three weeks on and three weeks off. It is found by protecting long-standing collective agreements for offshore workers in areas like catering, construction and drilling from any attempt by employers to further erode their terms and conditions.
Typically at the first sight of trouble employers prefer to attack workers’ terms, but Unite will resist any attempt to use the downturn in the oil and gas industry to impose further detrimental changes on the workforce.
Unite is also concerned that any reductions in the workforce may also lead to reductions in health and safety resources for offshore workers. This is a dangerous industry and corners must never be cut when it comes to safeguarding the workforce, the public and the environment.
Eighteen months ago Unite launched its successful Back Home Safe campaign to improve offshore helicopter safety. Unite is proud to say that this has resulted in significant changes to offshore helicopter safety, but we have not yet secured the fully independent public inquiry into the far-too-many fatal offshore helicopter accidents in this industry.
Thousands of offshore workers and their families want this inquiry, and they deserve justice. The Transport Select Committee has backed their calls, recommending an investigation into whether commercial pressures were brought to bear on the helicopter operators. Only the Department for Transport continues to deny the families some explanation — but Unite won’t let this rest, and the fight goes on.
An industry employing around 130,000 people in Scotland and 450,000 across Britain now faces tough times. With investment on the slide and talk of around 10 per cent of jobs under threat across the industry, we need our governments in Edinburgh and London to step up to address the challenges facing the sector.
Oil price fluctuations, dropping from a high of $110 (£73) a barrel in 2014 to around $50 (£33) today, pose an obvious problem — but so too does the fall in demand and global oversupply.
History shows that the price of oil has always been volatile. Price swings are not a new occurrence. Between November 1985 and March 1986, the price of crude plunged by 67 per cent. After this slump, it took nearly two decades for oil prices to return to pre-bust levels and remain there. We are hopeful that it will not take that long to recover this time.
Indications are that prices will pick up sooner rather than later, but oil companies are making decisions on investment which are having an impact on jobs, communities and the wider economy right now.
Unite is clear - the problems within the British oil and gas industry require a collective approach. That means including the workforce and trade union representatives, in shared solutions to the troubles before us.
When the Scottish government’s energy taskforce met in January, it looked at ways to support jobs and provide assistance for those facing redundancy. This, in turn, supports the good work being done through the STUC to encourage all concerned parties to unite and find ways of mitigating the worse effects of this downturn. The Aberdeen Oil Summit in February had a broadly similar outcome.
If the industry is to be given the tax incentives hinted at by the Chancellor, George Osborne in the March budget, they must be linked to protecting jobs, providing training opportunities, increasing apprenticeship numbers and looking at further exploration.
In the short-term the winners appear to be consumers, who are benefiting from the low cost of fuel at the petrol pumps. But the longer view is more worrying for us all. With the amount of revenue collected in fuel duty plummeting, Treasury revenues are down. There is every chance that this government will consider this a further reason to make even deeper austerity cuts.
One thing is certain — when the oil price picks up, the industry must be ready. Contractors must ensure that there is a workforce with the skills and training in place needed to do the job.
If industry bosses continue to lay people off and fail to recognise the need to train for the upturn, the industry will face an unprecedented skills shortage in the future.
Unite will continue to defend and protect long-standing offshore collective bargaining agreements from any attacks from employers and we will consult our members about what we need to do to protect their jobs, terms and conditions.
Our members can rest assured that during these uncertain times — their union will continue to ensure that their collective voice is heard at the negotiating table, both with employers and by the Scottish, British and European government bodies.
Unite the Union