There is growing tension between the biggest oil companies and thousands of their offshore workers in the North Sea over the issue of holidays.
“BP made £15 billion and Shell made £18 billion in profit last year,” explained one offshore crane operator. “But they are refusing to give us the four weeks of paid holiday that we deserve.”
Workers, represented by the Unite, GMB, and Oilc unions, are growing increasingly frustrated. The smaller offshore companies reached a settlement with unions that included four weeks of paid holiday for the first time, as well as pay increases.
But the big operators represented by Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) are refusing, a position described by Graham Tran, the Unite regional officer as “obscene” and “unacceptable and disgraceful behaviour”.
The UK Drilling Association made an attempt to buy off its workers by offering a 5 percent pay increase and a 3 percent lump sum in lieu of implementing holiday time.
It is a sign of the confidence of offshore workers that the deal was resoundingly rejected.
“We are going to get our holidays,” said one offshore worker. “Everyone on my platform is in the union, and we won’t accept anything less.”
One year ago, North Sea divers went on strike and won a 45 percent pay increase.
The four weeks of holiday is already “included” in the normal offshore “two weeks on two weeks off” working pattern.
But even on that pattern, offshore workers work far more hours than those on-shore.
One crane operator explained: “For the two weeks I am on the platform, I am never ‘off’. I have a 12 hour shift, and then I am on call for 12 hours in case there is a problem, and then I am back on my 12 hour shift.
“By the end of my two weeks I am exhausted – and then sometimes they keep you on for another week! It is a very stressful job. We are working with explosive materials under a huge amount of pressure.
“It’s like a time bomb. If something ever happens it will be deadly serious. On Piper Alpha, one guy turned the wrong valve and 167 people were killed. On my rig, the pipes are under twice as much pressure, and we have a 0 percent survival rate for serious accidents.”
Some companies have now moved to a two-week on/three-week off rota, but the big oil companies argue that shifting to this would cost too much money.
The tight labour market puts workers in a powerful position, and makes companies vulnerable to any kind of industrial action.
The 300 workers that have had their claims for four weeks of paid holiday time denied are now in employment tribunals in Aberdeen.