The UK Coastguard Agency must respond to concerns that safety of UK seafarers is being compromised by North Sea operators employing foreign workers from lightly regulated regimes in order to “exploit our natural resources”, a Holyrood committee has said.
The RMT union has described conditions on some “flag of convenience” vessels operating in UK waters as “purgatory”.
The Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee has also called on the Scottish Government to do more work to assess the impact of the oil crisis on Scotland’s economy, in a report entitled Future Prospects for Oil and Gas in Scotland.
Unions told the committee of an increasing exclusion of UK seafarers from the North Sea due to “employers using gaps in employment legislation to employ non-UK seafarers below the UK minimum wage”.
The STUC said these practices were not evident in other North Sea jurisdictions, and that “there is no doubt” the health and safety of UK seafarers was being compromised.
Jake Molloy, regional organiser of the RMT union, said: “I have done International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF) inspections on some vessels that have been flying the flag of convenience, and I know that the Filipino and Indonesian workers look upon us as the police arriving to save them from purgatory.
“The conditions on some of those ships are appalling (with) less competent, less able and less willing workers being exploited in order to exploit our natural resources.”
The ITWF defines a flag of convenience ship as one that flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership, which can mean “very low wages, poor on-board conditions, inadequate food and clean drinking water and long periods of work without proper rest” so operators can benefit from “minimal regulation, cheap registration fees, low or no taxes and freedom to employ cheap labour from the global labour market”.
Mr Molloy told the Committee British seafarers had taken a 25% wage cut resulting in a salary of only £23,000 a year and now worked six days on, six days off “to try to save their jobs and compete”.
He called for action to restrict employment in EU waters to EU and UK seafarers who are paid at minimum wage.
The Committee said: “We invite the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to respond to the concerns raised with the Committee by trade union representatives in respect of health and safety on flag of convenience vessels and the remuneration of non-UK seafarers below the UK minimum wage.
“We ask also for an update on recent UK Government engagement at an EU level to protect and enhance the working conditions of UK seafarers.”
The Committee also recognised the challenge of assessing the impact the oil crisis has had on the Scottish economy.
But it called for more work to be done amid evidence suggesting the number of jobs lost or at risk “is likely to be much higher” than the 6,000 “direct“ jobs estimated by the Scottish Government in September.
The actual figures did not include self-employed subcontractors, the Committee said.
In September 2015, the Scottish Government’s Energy Jobs Taskforce said the industry “is on an improving trajectory”.
In the same month, Oil & Gas UK (OGUK) said oil related jobs had contracted by 15% since the start of 2014, equating to 65,000 jobs, and warned that it is “likely that capacity may have to be reduced still further”.
The STUC agreed with OGUK and said “the situation has since deteriorated and that significant future job losses can be anticipated”.
In forecasts for 2016, Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce said “we are not at the bottom in terms of the reduction in employment” and OGUK said “inevitably, there will be further job losses”.
The Committee said: “Short term prospects, particularly for offshore workers, appear to be very difficult.
“However, we believe that with appropriate support from Governments, and enhanced collaboration, driven by the Oil and Gas Authority, a sustainable industry can emerge from this downturn.
“We also recognise the challenge in assessing the wider impact on the Scottish economy and suggest that the Scottish Government and its enterprise agencies consider whether more work requires to be done to establish the extent of this.”
Committee Convener Murdo Fraser (Conservative) said: “We call on all those involved to continue to work together to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas rather than rush to decommissioning.”
Deputy Convener Dennis Robertson (SNP) said: “In light of recent job losses there is also a real fear that many highly skilled workers may be lost to the sector. It is important that the industry reflects on this point to ensure that essential skills are retained in the workforce when the downturn stabilises with the possibility of recovery in the future.”
Green MSP Patrick Harvie dissented from the Committee’s call for maximum extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea.
He said: “With low oil prices and far greater reserves of fossil fuel than can ever be used, the idea that business-as-usual will resume is simply delusional. Today’s reckless report shows that the other parties in parliament have their heads in the sand.”