Offshore contractors and union representatives warned against the prospect of “unlawful” strike action this week, as workers prepare to down tools in a bid for pay uplifts in the face of rising cost of living.
Offshore workers, including those covered by the Energy Services Agreement (ESA) plan to down tools for 24 hours, beginning September 8 at 1pm.
The action is understood to involve workers and contractors employed by energy services firms including Wood, Bilfinger and Stork.
But union and corporate representatives warned the action risks damaging the reputation of the North Sea, and the prospect of future deals on pay and jobs.
Among other grievances, offshore workers are demanding pay be brought in line with that of onshore staff and made clear their dissatisfaction with the current terms of the ESA, a collective bargaining agreement which sets minimum pay and conditions for around 5,000 workers.
Workforce representatives are seeking a ballot on the revision of ESA pay terms by 1 November, the backdating of any uplift in pay to 1 July 2022 – including for those workers who have been down-manned or finished fixed-term contracts since that time – and a proposed 4% rate increase brought forward from January 2023 to October 2022.
The committee took aim at the rising cost of living and record oil and gas profits in setting out their requests.
“We constantly watch the men and women at the top take home massive pay rates and bonuses, yet they treat us like scum,” alleges a letter signed on behalf of the workforce and seen by Energy Voice.
If carried out, it would be the second unofficial action this year, after workers staged a ‘wage revolution’ walkout in May.
Unofficial strike ‘risks everything’
However in a joint letter from ESA signatories Unite, RMT and GMB, the unions said formal negotiations offered “a real chance to change this industry for the better of every worker” and that any unofficial action “risks everything.”
They pointed out that between 2014/15 and January 2023, workers will have seen a 25% increase to base rates of pay, while the ESA has ensured that minimum rates have been protected.
It also states that there are ongoing formal negotiations around changes to skills, allowances and meals.
“We have the chance to make real gains if we get organised,” the letter adds. “Our concern is that unofficial action risks everything. Some operators on the old infrastructure will use industrial unrest to justify early decommissioning and all we’ll get is more redundancies.
“Others will see a divided workforce and will exploit that.”
Trade body Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) said last week that it was “aware of the calls for unofficial action”, and urged those involved to “follow the official channels”.
Meanwhile a letter from management at services group Stork makes clear that “any unofficial action would be classed as a breach of contract,” and that employees who take part would lose wages and allowances for each day of participation and could face disciplinary action.
As well as being “unlawful”, the company said that wildcat strikes would also “undermine the credibility” of the ESA and may “discourage further investment in the North Sea.”
Stork said it was working with the ESA signatories on issues including skills shortage pay increases and on offshore training passports, and called on workers to raise grievances through formal channels.
The full impact of the proposed strike action remains to be seen, but a Telegram group set up to organise workers currently has over 400 members.
Yet union communications were clear that its members “need to be patient and need to get organised.”
“Trying a smash and grab job for short term gains we fear will only put the whole thing at risk. It’s your call.”
What is the ESA?
The ESA sets minimum pay and conditions for around 5,000 workers, and was ratified in 2021 by three unions and 14 contractor companies, with further signatories joining in 2022.
The deal replaced the Offshore Contractors’ Partnership Agreement (OCPA) which had been negotiated by the Offshore Contractors’ Association (OCA) and unions since 1995, but which was dissolved at the end of 2020 after years of protracted negotiations.
It includes a rate adjustment mechanism (RAM), which automatically calculates changes to salaries using a formula based on average inflation and oil and gas prices.
The most recent calculation was completed at the beginning of the year, prior the Russian invasion of Ukraine which spurred already high commodity prices.
Under the current agreement, the next formal review of the RAM is scheduled for February 2023, however workers have demanded the calculation be brought forward to reflect both the rising cost of living and soaring oil and gas prices.