In the story of "the Norwegian oil adventure", which NRKs TV drama Lykkeland describes, and which the development aid program Oil for Development is based on, there is an unrealistic expectation of good jobs. “Oil is a fairy tale, and like every fairy tale a bit of a lie", wrote Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, with reference to the expectations of economic development and job creation from oil.
Written by: Camilla Houeland
Labour organisation and workplace democracy have been crucial for Norwegian oil workplaces, but are ignored in development debates. That "working in oil" is a privileged position is only partially and increasingly less true here in Norway, and less true elsewhere. Ensuring good working conditions requires strong trade unions.
Early offshore work in the Norwegian North Sea is described as “a wild west” of “cowboys” working under precarious conditions, and where "a few losses” was accepted. Many roughneck workers lacked a finger or two", explained Lars Andreas Myhre, President of the oil workers’ union Nopef from 1977 to 2000. Work on the platforms was lonely and dangerous. From 1965 to 1978, 82 workers died offshore. 123 where killed in the Alexander Kielland accident in 1980. Today, the Norwegian offshore workers are wage leaders globally, and they have the best safety conditions in the industry. This is not least because Norwegian oil workers are probably the best organised in the world.
They have collective agreements and influence politically and at work places. "Norwegian workers won the struggle against the oil companies," Myhre said at a recent meeting about the key struggles in Norwegian oil history.
Oil companies around the world organise themselves away from liability and staff responsibility by outsourcing to subcontractors and labour contractors. Security, party cooperation and working conditions are also under pressure in Norway. In some companies, shop stewards are afraid to present demands, fearing that they might lose their jobs. As recently as 2018, the Minister of Labour confirmed that the Working Environment Act shall apply to ships operating on the Norwegian shelf. The trade union movement has previously uncovered social dumping with wages for Asian workers down to NOK 30 per hour.
Work like elephants, eat like ants
The global union federation, IndustriAll, who among others organise oil workers, is running a campaign against Shell. They are calling on Shell to engage with unions on a global level in a campaign to limit precarious work, improve health and safety, and ensure that Shell applies the same high-level standards at its operations everywhere, including suppliers.
The campaign focuses on Shell Nigeria. "We work like an elephant and eat like an ant", a Nigerian Shell worker told IndustriAll. Contract workers earn $137 to $257 a month, for 12-hour days and six-day weeks. This does not translate to a decent life and schooling for the children. In my own work, I have listened to many frustrated oil workers in the Niger Delta telling about the mismatch between what friends and family think the salary level is, and the reality.
"If you ask for a wage increase, you are escorted out by the police, your job is terminated unless you sign a contract to not trade unionise, or ask for a wage increase," says one to IndustriAll. Shell's revenues from Nigeria in 2017 were $ 4 billion.
Conflict, corruption and working conditions
Shell in Nigeria is associated with the world's largest oil disaster, corruption, conflict, and human rights violations in the Niger Delta. This is related to working conditions, although it is rarely discussed. Oil spills in general, and extensive gas leaks and flaring (burning of gas) in particular, make oil work in Nigeria harmful. IndustriAll writes that lack of health insurance leads to unnecessary illness and death.
Shell Nigeria is often accused of divide-and-rule tactics to break workers solidarity as well as potential alliances between employees and local communities. We know of the manipulation of social divisions to weaken the trade union movement from oil companies and oil states throughout history, from the racial divides in the southern United States to national employees against migrant workers in Iran. The mix of labour reorganisation and divide-and-rule strategies is particularly evident and dangerous in Nigeria.
Militant as well as civil resistance to oil companies in the Niger Delta is often ethnically based. Many oil workers are from elsewhere in Nigeria, and cooperation with local organisations is difficult and potentially dangerous due to ethnicity and violent conflict. Abduction of oil workers has been an important part of the local resistance to oil companies. For many, the oil workers are considered representatives of the oil companies, not part of the local community.
As elsewhere in the world, it is also common to promote workers to avoid radical and militant action. White-collar workers in Nigeria are often permanent employees, well-paid and organised in Pengassan, which is less strike prone, while blue collar workers have lower wages, are often hired on short-term contracts and/or by subcontractors, and are organized in the more radical and militant trade union, NUPENG.
Community leaders as labour brokers
In the wake of the international pressure on Shell, when in 1995 the company was implicated in the hanging of “the Ogoni nine”: nine environmental and democracy activists including the poet Ken Saro-Wiva were murdered under the notorious Abacha regime, Shell developed "corporate social responsibility” strategies - by many considered a pure PR initiative. As part of the CSR-strategy today, and to create local jobs, Shell enters into cooperation agreements (Memorandum of Understanding) with community leaders to provide labour such as cleaning, pipeline security, catering, and so called "stand-by workforce".
In practice, these community leaders are then subcontractors or labour brokers. I met a group of men contracted by their community leader as pipeline security guards to monitored Shell's oil pipelines. The salary was 20.000 naira, approximately $ 100 in 2014, just above the then national minimum wage of 18.000 naira. When I met them, they had six months of outstanding salary.
Even though the community leadership was their direct and formal employer, the workers picketed Shell to demand their salary to be paid. They told me they considered Shell to be responsible. Moreover, it could be dangerous to confront the community leaders. The working conditions here are determined by patronage, family and kinship, and not by formal contracts. Many leaders use such labour contracts for self-enrichment, and there are several intra- and inter-community, violent conflicts over the control of such MoUs with Shell or others. Additionally, "stand-by workforce" have been used as "security" and to harass striking oil workers.
If the oil workers sneeze, the whole country catches a cold
The two oil workers' unions in Nigeria are the trade union movement in the country. Some say; "When they sneeze - the whole country catches a cold", a manager at Agip in Nigeria, a subsidiary of Italian ENI, explained to me. The 30.000 organised oil workers in Nigeria can in principle stop Africa's largest economy by striking. A production stop will halt the income flow to the state and the state-bearing elites (70 % of the state's income comes from oil), a strike of oil transport workers will cut off the access to fuel for transport and for the generators that formal and informal business depended on.
Because of their potential power, oil workers around the world are particularly vulnerable to labour rights violations. In addition to having been crucial to the democracy movement in Nigeria, organised oil workers have been central to the revolutions in Azerbaijan (1905), Libya (1969) and Iran (1979). States and oil companies have also placed great emphasis on co-opting or "buying ", and taking control of oil workers and their organisations. The attack on striking oil workers in Kazakhstan in 2011 and closure of the independent union is one example.
Global solidarity and working life democracy
With intensified globalisation of labour organisation in the oil industry, oil workers compensate for some of the loss of power at local level by strengthen the global level of organisation. The campaign against Shell started at the initiative of a workers network of Shell shop stewards from 14 countries. While Shell refuses to negotiate at this level, other companies, such as ENI, have included such dialogue in their global frameworks agreements. The Norwegian oil union, Industri Energi has presented demands for such global worker networks and global negotiations in the global framework agreement with Norwegian Equinor. As Norwegians, we are co-owners of all these three companies through direct state ownership (Equinor) or through the Government Pension Fund (known as the Oil Fund) that holds share in ENI and Shell Nigeria. International investment standards are not enough; we need to work for democratic processes at the workplace and in the companies.
The Norwegian development debate has a blind spot to working life issues that are particularly evident in energy-related aid and development cooperation. Although the Norwegian government recognises that a well-organised work life and strong co-operation between employers, workers and government as fundamental to the high security on the Norwegian shelf, the trade union movement is not included in relevant development cooperation, such as the Oil for Development's work on health, environment and safety. Norwegian investments in Africa are heavily linked to the petroleum industry, with rhetorical reasoning to invest in the development of job creation. We already know there are few jobs to be created in this industry. However, there is a lack of discussion on the quality of these jobs, and recognition of the precarious conditions and lack of labour rights in the oil industry.
Article translated from Norwegian by Siw Kjørsvik.
The article was originally in Norwegian in Bistandsaktuelt