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“No one’s talking to them”: how offshore workers are being let down by net zero

Caught between uncaring employers and ineffective politicians, a generation of workers risks being left behind.

By Samir Jeraj

“Rigging is rigging, it doesn’t matter if you’re on an oil rig, you’re in a fabrication yard, or if you’re on a wind turbine,” said Paul*, an engineer who has been working offshore for 20 years. Now, as political divisions over the transition to net zero deepen, he’s working through his union to ensure that the skills he and other workers have learned constructing and working on oil rigs can be transferred to renewables.

“To me this looks like common sense,” he told New Statesman Spotlight.

At the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, representatives from 197 states and the European Union signed a final text committing to the transition away from fossil fuels. In the UK, meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has been giving mixed signals. At the end of September, the government approved drilling at a new oilfield at Rosebank, near the Shetland Islands. Weeks earlier, Sunak had U-turned on net zero policies and pledged “hundreds” more licences to drill for oil and gas as a way to make the UK “energy independent” and protect jobs.

But this approach is short-sighted, believes Rosemary Harris, the North Sea just transition campaigner at Platform, a climate NGO that focuses on organising. “For every one job lost in phasing out oil and gas three could be created as long as we have the right conditions,” she said. “But if we don’t make the effort to do that, we’re approaching… a cliff edge for both our ability to continue to extract oil and gas, but also those workers.”

Platform has been working since 2019 with oil and gas workers looking at what a just energy transition to renewables would look like for them. Early research carried out by Greenpeace was startling, said Harris: “It’s a fairly unhappy, fairly vulnerable and exploited workforce, who feel shut out of any possibility of a just transition.” Blacklisting is a real concern for workers who want to challenge their employers.

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In the backlash against the move to a greener economy, the oil and gas sector was touted as supporting “high skill, high pay” jobs, and one in which workers were represented by strong unions. The reality is different, said Paul. Salaries, support for training, and working hours are all points of contention with company bosses. For example, the average offshore worker will do one month on a rig and one month off. “The money’s not there because you’re splitting your money in between two months… it works out at about £125 a day,” Paul explained. The fear is that workers will be left out of the plans for a green transition, losing pay, security and rights as the companies they work for move into offshore wind or other renewables.

With workers left out of government and industry discussions over net zero, this created the possibility for oil and gas workers and climate campaigners to work together. “They know their industry better than anyone else. No one’s talking to them,” said Harris.

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Platform spoke to a thousand workers, through workshops and focus groups it arranged, to identify the changes that needed to happen and the challenges to overcome. The report that came out of that – “Our Power” – details oil and gas workers’ demands for a just transition. “It is not fair or equitable or just for us to have another failed industrial transition that leaves behind workers like with coal… and devastates communities,” Harris added.

Paul is working on ensuring that training is recognised across sectors, as workers need different up-to-date safety certificates to work in offshore oil, offshore wind and onshore wind – despite the skills largely being the same. Without those certificates they can’t work. “It’s not as though it’s a training course I’m doing,” Paul said, “because I’m not learning anything on the course. I know [the skills]. It’s just to get that piece of paper to then go offshore.” The training is expensive: Paul has paid around £3,000 for the certificates necessary to work in wind power.

“It’s clear that in recent years, there is less and less support from the companies in terms of financial assistance for this training,” said Dr Daria Shapovalova, an academic at the University of Aberdeen working on the energy transition. What this means is that workers pay thousands of pounds for training, but without any certainty on whether that training is the one they need to transition to green jobs.

“We need to democratise the way we are regulating our energy sector, which has historically been very centralised,” Shapovalova said. “We need to dismantle that.” Her work has found that while companies have sometimes adopted a “just transition plan”, there is no harmonised or common procedure for including workers.

Another challenge is political – particularly as we head into an election year. Scotland is governed by the SNP, while Westminster by the Conservatives. The opposition Labour Party has its own take on what a just transition looks like. “There is no clear understanding of what’s going to happen after the next election,” Shapovalova added. “And not having a clear plan is not good for anyone, whether it’s workers or even the industry.”

Shapovalova was clear that government has to take a bigger role in delivering a just energy transition and involve workers in that process: “There is some genuine effort on the part of some companies in the industry to do better, but I also think that we should not place it on the industry to deliver just transition for us.”

The fundamental problem for both campaigners working for an end to oil and gas extraction and for workers in the industry is basically the same, according to Harris: government pledges do not seem to be leading to real change in jobs in the energy sector. Now that Sunak has pledged hundreds more oil and gas licences to extract from the North Sea, the long-term certainty and planning necessary for a just transition is lacking more now than ever. Now that Cop28 participants have committed to move away from fossil fuels, the government’s position seems more and more dislocated from the world, too.

*Name has been changed.

[See also: When oil and gas infrastructure becomes obsolete]

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