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North Sea worker strikes loom as contracts tighten

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Jillian Ambrose: 1 MAY 2016

The North Sea sector could face the first wave of workers strikes in a generation as union tensions rise in response to longer hours and lower pay for the embattled workforce.

This weekend members of Unite are weighing up whether to accept tougher contract terms from Wood Group, one of the North Sea’s largest oilfield services firms, after the group met with unions on Friday.

A strike across Wood Group’s workforce could impact projects across the North Sea including decommissioning work on the giant Brent oilfield operated by oil giant Shell, where workers have already threatened to down tools over Wood Group’s plans for tougher contracts.

But union leaders have warned that the North Sea workforce as a whole may already have been pushed too far, with anger across the struggling sector raising the likelihood of widespread industrial action.

Unite has accused North Sea bosses of “opportunistic” cuts which “make it impossible” for safety standards to be maintained.

Workers are being paid less and asked to work longer hours across more demanding shift patterns. In addition, maritime union Nautilus says its members have raised concerns that British contractors are being overlooked in favour of Asian workers, at rates far below the UK minimum wage.

Last month a consultative ballot from Unite showed a 93.5pc vote in favour of proceeding to an industrial action ballot, which could affect operations on nearly every installation across North Sea.

“Industrial action is the last thing that our members would want to do, particularly with the pressures that the sector is under, but if the workforce is pushed too far they will react. And we will robustly defend them,” said Unite’s Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty.

Nautilus said a number of companies have increased the length of offshore tours to as long as eight weeks at a time, while rig operators are demanding 3 week stints without increasing the amount of downtime.

“This is of great concern as fatigue is a known risk in the industry and asking a seafarer to work up to 12 hours per day for over six weeks will clearly have an impact on their ability operate their ships safely,” Nautilus spokesman Steve Doran said.

Shell declined to comment on the risk of disruption at its Brent platforms field.

Wood Group said it is reviewing personnel requirements at Shell’s Brent Alpha and Delta platforms.

“We are working with employees impacted, proactively seeking redeployment opportunities where possible,” a Wood Group spokeswoman said.

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