My life at work: on an offshore rig

Submitted by martin on 16 March, 2010 - 6:08 Author: Bob Carnegie

Bob Carnegie is a seafarer on an offshore gas rig.

What's the job like, and what do you do?
I'm employed as a merchant seafarer on a semi-submersible gas rig off the north-west coast of Australia, the Ensco 7500. The reason I'm employed is that under Australian Marine Orders, self-propelled rigs have to have a certain marine complement. I work night shifts, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, on a three-week cycle: three weeks on the rig, and then three weeks back home in Brisbane. For the merchant seafarers on the rig, a lot of our work is looking after life-saving equipment and trying to keep up general maintenance.

What are the working and living conditions like?
The food is good. Apart from that, the conditions on the rig are abysmal. In 1985 I was jailed for three weeks in the remand section of a maximum security prison, Boggo Road in Brisbane, after being arrested on a picket line. In general the conditions in Boggo Road were superior to the rig.
On the rig, you sleep four to a cabin, with eight workers sharing one toilet and shower. There is no recreation space, no place where even for five minutes you can have time to yourself.
The rig just would not be able to operate in the British sector of the North Sea, where much more reasonable living conditions have been won, let alone in the Norwegian sector.
The wages are quite high, but they in no way compensate for the horrendous conditions workers have to endure.

What do workers on the rig think about the job?
Many think the same as me. But there are also many who have a culture of being "tough", taking pride in being able to tolerate bad conditions, and claiming that they're not interested in anything but the money. It's an odd collection of workers, flown on to the rig every three weeks and then flown off again. I've seen that sort of culture before - on a smaller scale - in seafaring and construction, and I know that it can be changed by strong union organisation. But it hasn't been changed yet on the rigs.

What do you think union activity on the rigs should focus on?
When I started out as a young activist in the seafarers' union, even the Stalinists leading the union knew enough to teach me that as a trade unionist I should fight over conditions first and foremost, and we could sort out wages after we won on conditions. Conditions are key, not wage rises as such.

What's the union organisation on the job?
Among the seafarers it's 100%. At the present time the seafarers' union, the Maritime Union of Australia, and the AWU (Australian Workers' Union) have an Alliance. With me as the lead delegate onboard, we have recruited about 90% of the eligible workforce into the Alliance.This, I would like to stress, does not make them all good unionists yet. In the main, it reflects the fact that the MUA, and myself as the delegate, have gone head to head with the management about improving allowances and conditions on board. Recently we won a $75 a day "hard-laying" allowance for all Alliance members, to compensate for the primitive conditions. That of course helped in union recruitment.

What's management's attitude to union organisation?
The rig is owned by Ensco (a multinational corporation now headquartered in Great Britain) and is chartered by Chevron. Both companies are hostile to union activity.
The rig management comes in the main from the Deep South of the United States - Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. Sometimes they can not conceal the utter contempt they have for unions and the ideals we fight for.
It is either their way or the highway, and that is why I have had many confrontations with them. They seem to believe that they are the Romans of our time, and we are their vassals. Well, I can proudly tell you I have tried to be their Hannibal,but like Hannibal at great cost. At least they can't sack Carthage!

If I could change one thing about the workplace, what would it be?
It would be to have safety taken seriously, and not as an issue for companies to cover their negligent arses with. The big oil majors say they take safety as paramount. I can tell you all that is absolute bullshit! When safety gets in the way of production, safety takes a backward step.
Most of the safety reps onboard are too intimidated to raise issues for fear that they will end up on the next helicopter off the rig after some trumped-up disciplinary charge.

Since his last three-week "swing" on the rig, Bob Carnegie has been told by his direct employer, a labour-hire company, that Chevron have put him on a "no-fly" list, barring his return to the rig. Workers on the rig struck on 20-21 February against this victimisation. The labour-hire company currently promises to find Bob work on another rig.

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