Crumlin: Oil And Gas Industry Misinformation Has Sinister Aim

Today, National Secretary Paddy Crumlin has an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review that addresses false claims made by the oil and gas industry companies.

You can read the published version here (subscription required): 

But, the full version of the article as submitted to the AFR follows:

Image - Crumlin_FPSO_2013.JPG
[Picture: Paddy Crumlin talks about the oil and gas industry at last month's FPSO Conference in Sydney.]

Executives in the oil and gas industry are currently advancing a raft of false claims that cloud a more fundamental choice: should Australian workers now and into the future live in a sustainable society for all like the Australia of today or, as the industry and its Coalition allies appear to desire some more degraded version?

On behalf of my members, I make no apologies for establishing a decent standard of living for workers in the oil and gas sector who often work up to 14 hours per day in physically challenging and high-risk occupations that are compounded by the stringent emotional demands of almost total isolation from their families. Those decent standards don’t just mean wages, which, by way of accuracy, have averaged a modest five percent increase over the last decade. In fact, wages for MUA members have risen 10% less than the increases in average Western Australian wages (covering all industry sectors and occupations) over the last decade.

In the same vein, we seek to establish safety standards. Our inspections, unseen to the public, work to ensure vessels are seaworthy and safe to operate. Cranes, alarm systems, navigation equipment, life saving equipment, communications equipment, and health and hygiene in galley are among the many issues reviewed. Inspectors check to make sure workers are not exposed to the asbestos on imported vessels.  The so-called costs under attack as excessive equally apply to maintaining those standards of risk mitigation.

Companies like Chevron, and its Coalition allies, talk a good game of “family values” but, then, attack basic standards in place for years. Our members often work 35 days at sea without a break; sometimes, four grown men share a cabin half the size of an ordinary bedroom. Those men simply want up-to-date technologies on board to communicate, in the few hours open to them at sea, with loved ones.

Tony Abbott’s attack on the swing shift is another example of his ignorance about workers’ lives in this and other isolated mining and construction sectors. Offshore workers are at sea for five weeks. Ships aren't prisons. They come off in what occupational therapists and psychologists have identified as advanced states of accumulative physical and emotional fatigue. They switch with other workers, ensuring a fresh, efficient workforce who are forced to fly many hours to get to their jobs where they labour under arduous conditions. These standards apply not only to seafarers, but all workers in these types of isolated operations including offshore management who, in most cases work much lesser intervals, some as little as two weeks at a time.

So, where do the costs really come from? Unsurprisingly, in an echo of mismanaged industries globally, lets take a peak at the pockets of a few executives.

Pick any company—ExxonMobil, Chevron or Royal Dutch Shell—and you will find pay and benefits packages that make every CEO a fabulously rich man, at least by ordinary Australian standards. Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson raked in a heart stopping $3.5 million cash bonus for the oil company's big profit in 2012--$26.2 billion in 2012, the second-largest profit in company history.  Last year, Woodside Petroleum CEO Peter Coleman took home $7.2 million in compensation.  Mr Abbott would have more credibility if he announced an overview of their wage increases over the last 10 or 20 years instead.

By comparison, the workers who beaver away at the core operations receive comparatively microscopic financial returns, but, given Mr Abbott’s comments, they are in for another round of political bashing and bullying under a government led by him. Deja vu of the Howard era for Australian workers. 

Since union density on Gorgon project is under twenty percent, and MUA members account for just 10 percent of the 5,000 workers, it’s not credible to blame labour’s wages and conditions for high costs. It's just another cheap shot by a corporate elite growing immune from criticism themselves. A cheap shot charged with the political opportunism of the election.

As president of the International Transport Workers Federation, I regularly deal with companies that trade in the offshore oil and gas industry globally. They do business here in Australia because they have access to resources they can’t easily find elsewhere, and can employ skilled, trained workers. Anthony Albanese has correctly pointed out that seven of the world’s twelve ­largest LNG projects are being built in Australia, and we will be the largest world producer in the near future. Those businesses choosing to go other places do so based on other, non-labour cost development strategies or they simply aren't considered good enough to win tenders based on rules put in place by the majors oil companies. Ironically Chevron’s senior management has been the only one that refuses to talk to me other than by press release.  

So, when the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, the Australian Mines and Metals Association and Tony Abbot’s wingmen rant about high costs using false claims, make no mistake about it: the goal is for all Australians, not just my members, to be paid at degraded levels and work under safety and other conditions conducive to the risk that spewed oil at some of their companies operations in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Brazilian coast.

It's perplexing when senior executives call on  more transparency and balance in our IR system, backing that call with spurious facts and distortions of what their workers earn and how they really work.  The conclusion must be drawn that this plea is really a highly political play about preserving their own personal and special elitism while decreasing corporate accountability for the national assets Australians own and they manage.  Hardly a basis for much maturity and balance going forward.

Paddy Crumlin is National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Austria and the President of the 5-million International Transport Workers Federation.