“We’re unpaid, stressed, and in danger”: Migrant workers in Norway afraid to name oil giant for fear of retribution

oil gas energy industry workerPhoto: Zheng Zaishuru via Canva (one-design use license)
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An ugly side of the oil empire that allows Norway a spot among the world’s richest countries.

In February of 2021, Norway Today received a request from a migrant oil and gas industry worker in Norway. Speaking on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution, he wanted to relay to the public his account of working in the industry in Norway as a migrant.

Shockingly, he alleged that, along with working under high-stress and dangerous conditions, migrant workers weren’t being paid during quarantine periods mandated by the Norwegian government. Unlike their Norwegian colleagues.

This is his story – followed by what the Norwegian authorities had to say about it.

Oil rig worker speaks on unfair working conditions in Norway

Could you give us an introduction to your situation?

“For foreign oil and gas workers in the Norwegian sector, it will be a year in March since we started doing quarantine due to COVID. Unlike our Norwegian colleagues, though, we don’t get paid for doing quarantine in Norway. Due to union agreements, and the fact that the government mandated quarantines for us, the companies don’t pay us.

“We pay full tax to the Norwegian government. So, it’s not like we don’t contribute to the economy… But we don’t even get the benefits. 

“The mega-sized oil and gas industry, you would think, has the influence to lobby the government. But it seems unwilling to do so for us. It’s now getting to a stage where guys are going off with stress and we see this as a major safety issue.

“Other countries like the UK give exemptions to oil and gas workers going offshore as they don’t mix with the general public and are tested before going offshore. Yet Norway – which thanks to oil is one of the richest countries in the world – shows no concern for us. There is blatantly obvious discrimination between us foreigners and the local Norwegians.

“The oil and gas industry is a small industry and all nationalities work in all sectors around the world. No one country could operate without a multinational workforce.

“We are now taking matters into our own hands and asking the Norwegian government to give exemptions to foreign oil and gas workers who are tested probably more than anyone. That’s ALONG with quarantining! I had 5 COVID tests AND quarantine for my trip in February alone.

“If something is not done someone will get hurt or even worse due to long-term stress and Norway’s dangerous oil and gas working environment.”

What’s the industry protocol for paying local and foreign workers during quarantine? 

“There is no official protocol/collective agreement for a pandemic or doing quarantine. When COVID started, the shipowners and Industri Energi Union [a Norwegian trade union for the petroleum industry, among others] could not agree on terms.

“Since the pandemic started, there have been two types of mandated quarantine for workers: 1) quarantine mandated by the government (this is for anyone entering Norway) and 2) quarantine mandated by the oil companies (this depends on whether the company doctor happens to advise it or not). Foreign workers coming from abroad are always required to quarantine by the government and also sometimes the companies. Norwegian workers are only mandated to do it by the companies, sometimes.

“Shipowners decided they would pay out 8 hours for workers in quarantine required by a company – but not to those of us in quarantine required by the government. Since the government forces anyone entering Norway to do quarantine – all migrant workers have to do it. So we do not get paid during this period of doing something we are forced to do – but local workers do.

Industri Energi Union immediately raised a case against the shipowners. The case stated that payment must be given to everyone – even those of us that are forced to quarantine by the government. But still nothing. There is a lot of frustrations in regards to the length of time this is taken to sort out. It’s been over a year now.

“We realize that COVID is an extraordinary situation – but you would think the shipowners would understand this is not right. It is simply unfair that some get paid and others don’t. You would also think the Industri Energi Union would be making more noise about this unbelievable situation.

“Oil companies pay their employees for doing quarantine in all other parts of the world. Only in Norway do migrant workers not get paid, and this seems very discriminatory.”

So there’s no option for you to get tested instead of quarantining?

“No, we have to do both. The number of quarantine days changes with new rules – 10, 7, 14, 8, 10 again…

“In regards to testing, we probably get more tests than professional athletes get. We have to get a test before we fly, we get a test when we land, then we have to get another test at the hotel. And then yet another test the day before we go offshore. When doing a 10-day quarantine we have an additional test on day 5.

“Rules do change regarding quarantine lengths. But we always have to both test and quarantine.

“I know it sounds very confusing but that’s exactly the way it is… There’s no uniformity in procedures for oil companies. You not only have the government changing the rules all the time – but also every oil company changing them depending on what their company doctors decide.

“This drives us crazy as the rules sometimes make absolutely no sense.

“On top of that, the rules for Norwegians are completely different. Workers from a ‘red’ area in Norway can travel for work according to the Norwegian government. But the oil company might mandate them a quarantine period. For example, the company says they have to do 7 days in quarantine – but they can do 4 of these days at home then 3 at the hotel. All fully paid, unlike us.

“Where is the science or fairness in that!

“What makes matters worse is calling mutants (editor’s note: coronavirus variants) by geographical names. For example, by saying ‘British mutant’ – it perpetuates the idea that all foreigners from the UK should be banned.”

What does a day in the life of an oil industry worker in Norway look like in a quarantine hotel?

“Quarantine grinds you down, especially when you are confined to your rooms.

“It starts before you even leave the rig. Between jobs, we go home to our home countries. But while we’re still on the rig for one trip – we already need to start organizing the next one. Before you even reach home, you are already thinking about having to go back to start your next quarantine. It’s our responsibility to try and keep up with the continuous rule changes. We book our own flights and hotels and organize our own COVID tests.

“On a recent trip, I had to do ten days quarantine and give multiple COVID tests before going offshore…

“The night before I flew to Norway, I got a PCR test. Then, the next day, my wife dropped me off at the airport where I wore a mask until I arrived in Norway. 

“Upon arrival, I had to go to an airport testing facility and get another PCR test. This one was mandated by the Norwegian government.

“After leaving the airport, I walked to my quarantine hotel and checked in. There, I had to go get ANOTHER PCR test. This one was mandated by the oil and gas industry company I work for.

“Before traveling, I had gotten in touch with our COVID care testing facility and asked why I needed to do two tests in a row. Why would I need to get tested at the hotel right after just getting tested at the airport? The answer was Because the airport tests take too long to get results back. What’s the point, then? 

“On day five of this quarantine I got my next PCR test.

“On day 10 – the last day of the mandatory quarantine – right before I went offshore I got my last PCR test. So that’s five tests for one trip.

“At the hotels, at first, we were allowed to eat together in an area provided by the hotel which was not used by any others. This was ok – as we at least saw colleagues and could chat while we got our food (the tables were all spaced out and limited seating). The food was nice but there were no options, so you just had to take what was offered.  

“Then came the rule change. Now we have to eat in our rooms at all times so we see no one. Food is dropped outside your door on a tray and you put the tray back outside the door when finished. 

“It must be noted that some guys were in hotels where, for the whole year, they had to eat alone in their rooms! And the food was not good!

“If the weather is ok you can go out for exercise and this is good; the company has supplied bikes so we can go for a cycle or a walk. However, when the weather is bad you can only stay in your room and watch TV/Netflix/read books, etc. During the summer months, it’s easier, you can go walking outside. But the winter months are really a struggle with the bad weather. You can’t go out and it’s really quite depressing.

“What makes matters much worse is while you’re sitting in your hotel room, trying to pass the time, you know your family is at home – not going about life as normal – but coping with COVID measures. Everything is closed, the kids are at home and the wives/partners have to do home-schooling. And there’s nothing you can do. 

“In normal times it always seems like you’re away from home during birthdays/anniversaries etc… But that’s the nature of working on an oil rig. During COVID this is not the same – it is much worse. I can assure you of that.”

What does a day in the life of an oil industry worker in Norway look like on the rig?

“Our days consist of working 12-hour shifts. Conditions on the rigs are generally good. There are recreation rooms, we have TVs in the cabins, and so on.

“On a normal day, we get up at 5:45 AM, get breakfast at 6:00 AM, and start our shift at 6:45 AM.

“Then you’re on shift until handover that night at 6:45 PM. You realistically might not get out until 7:15 PM. Next, it’s time for an evening meal, shower, and a quick FaceTime call home. Then we sleep until it all starts over again.

“We also have ‘short change’ – which is when we switch from day shifts to night shifts after week one. That’s always a difficult time. Your body clock gets completely messed up. So, you’re always tired for two/three days until you get used to it. Some places do day shifts the first week, and nights the second week; others do it the other way around.”

What are the major causes of long-term stress in the industry/at your company?

“There is always stress. It’s a dangerous job.

“Big machines are continuously moving on the drill floor, the drill pipe is always getting moved about the rig, and containers are constantly unloaded from the boats.

“The workforce has been trimmed over the years. There is always pressure no matter the position. Even the catering crews get diminished in number – but those that are left are expected to do the same job.

“But the major issue for stress is that you are away from home and when things go on at home there is nothing you can do. Your kids could be sick, your wife might be having a bad day… These are the things that really get to you.

“This stress is quadrupled due to COVID and the fact that we don’t get paid for it.”

Have any workers needed medical help due to stress – or dangerous working conditions?

“Yes.

“We have people dropping like flies with stress-related problems and the sickness rate is growing every month. 

“Companies are only now taking steps to give access to professional bodies to help employees with this throughout the industry.”

Could you explain the danger involved in this job?

“The dangers are two-fold.

“The job we do is dangerous in normal times and even though the industry is probably safer than it’s ever been, people still get hurt and killed.

“We need to be fully concentrated during such a job or we could get injured or even worse, injure one of our colleagues.

“With this on our minds ALL the time, it’s even more difficult with the quarantines, the lockdowns, problems at homes that include wives/partners/kids, etc… It’s a real and present danger. 

“So we have short- and long-term effects of stress which is now rife amongst the workforce.

“We fully understand there are people with far more serious concerns than us; people have terminally ill children, people would be just happy to have a job, etc… But when you are in this situation month after month you get lost in your thoughts and depression sets in.

“There are a lot of people sick now suffering from this. In fact, nearly all of us that are going through this are suffering in our own ways. So are our wives, partners, and kids back home.”

What is your ideal fix for the situation? What would migrant workers like the companies, unions, and government to do right now?

“It’s unlikely after all this time that we will get a quarantine exemption for oil and gas workers like in the UK have, for example.

“Our only way out as we see it, and the Union seems to agree, is a vaccine exemption. The EU looks like it is going down this route too.

“Workers are now starting to get their vaccines.

“Due to the major health issues with stress and the long-term effects we are seeing across our industry, we hope it’s a top priority for the oil companies/shipowners to push the Norwegian government to allow us entry through an exemption for those that have had a vaccine.

“We don’t think we can wait for the official ‘vaccine passport,” if it ever comes. If we can’t go to work even after having the vaccination how will this ever end? 

“You would think an industry that has made Norway one of the richest countries in the world, we would get a bit more understanding from the government. We are classed the same as shipyard workers, farm laborers, etc., but there is one big difference. We live and work on a big steel platform in the middle of the sea, away from others, but this is not taken into consideration.

“Again, we pay full Norwegian tax – which we don’t get half the benefits for even though you think we would since we’re a big asset to Norway.

“We are not tourists, dealing with quarantine so that we can have a fun vacation. This is every month, all year for us. We have to do this just to be able to go to work and keep Norway’s Oil Fund growing.

“The oil and gas industry is quite a small industry that generates vast wealth for countries like Norway, UK, Denmark, and many others. It is an international business and no matter what rig/platform drillship you go to anywhere in the world – you have guys from every part of the world working there. No country in the world can operate this business without international employees working for them.

“What really gets us is the lack of common sense and fairness when applying restrictions to us as foreign workers, who are key actors in generating huge amounts of profit for these countries. For example, for the better part of the year, Norway marked both the USA and the UK as ‘red,’ meaning high-risk. Anyone coming from the UK could do 10 days quarantine – anyone coming from the US had to do 14 days quarantine because they are outside the Schengen area…

“Where is the science/logic/fairness here? Both countries are red, yet workers were treated differently. 

“Also, we see more people while in quarantine than we do going straight to the heliport and going offshore. Instead of going directly offshore, we get put into a hotel that’s full of local staff/many people from different company’s/rigs, etc. Depending on the hotel, it can also be full of tourists and the general public. In our opinion, there is more risk going to a quarantine hotel than going straight offshore.”

What do the Norwegian authorities say?

We reached out to the representative union and to the Norwegian government for comment on this situation.

The Industri Energi Union issued a PR statement on their website on February 6 stating that it’s a “demanding situation for everybody” and claiming they’re “doing everything we can to improve the corona situation for members”. In the statement, the union acknowledges a lack of fair compensation for migrant workers. However, they have not answered our request for comment, sent March 18.

We also reached out to the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy on March 18. They answered on March 19, saying: “We advise you to contact the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries who is responsible for questions regarding quarantines for foreign workers, as well as questions regarding conditions for workers in the petroleum and energy field.”

So, we reached out to the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries on March 19. But they also said they were not the responsible ministry. On March 24 they informed us they forwarded our request to the “Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which is the competent authority to respond to inquiries regarding working conditions and work environment for foreign workers in Norway.”

We received confirmation from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that our request was received and being processed on March 25.

The Ministry answered a number of our questions on March 30:

Could you confirm that foreign workers in the petroleum industry in Norway are not being paid at all or in full during quarantine periods, while local workers are?

“Employees who are members of the National Insurance Scheme may be entitled to sickness benefit during quarantine. That is if the quarantine period precludes the employee from performing work for the employer and if this results in a loss in pensionable income. If you breach the authorities’ travel advice and are quarantined after this, you can be denied the right to sickness benefit during quarantine. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises against non-essential travel to all countries. More information for Norwegian citizens about travel and the coronavirus here.

“In order to be entitled to sickness benefit, it is a condition that one stays in Norway. Stays in other EEA countries are equal to residence in Norway for those covered by the EEA Social Security Regulation.”

It’s unclear whether sickness benefits total the pay workers would get if they were Norwegian – and why it’s only offered in certain circumstances (staying in Norway and staying in EEA countries if covered by the EEA Social Security Regulation).

Have you tried to figure out a way for the foreign workers to be paid during this period?

“We assume the question refers to non-Norwegian employees who are unable to work in Norway due to the current tight border restrictions. On March 12, the government presented a proposal to the Storting (the Norwegian parliament), including the proposals for the necessary statutory authorities and budgetary measures involved in the delivery of a new compensation scheme.​ The government is proposing that affected employees receive compensation equivalent to 70% of the sickness benefit base rate and up to 6G. This will result in approximately the same levels of compensation that would have been paid to employees had they been furloughed. Employers will be responsible for advancing compensation to employees with such amounts to then be refunded by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration. The Storting will make its decision on the proposal in April. More information on income protection for locked out EEA citizens is here.

Are any other conditions different for foreign workers vs. local workers in the industry?

“The foreign workers employed in Norway are treated equally to employees from Norway, in terms of employment benefits. Specific rules apply for posted workers who are temporarily sent to Norway for work. More information about posted workers from countries in the EU/EEA or Switzerland in Norway is here.

Do you have any upcoming reassessments planned for foreign workers in the industry, in general?

“The regulations for limited expansion of exemption scheme to include specialist personnel are on until April 21. There are some facilitations to these rules: for employees who are involved in the construction, operation or maintenance of infrastructure here.”

Could you outline the dangers of work in the Petroleum and Energy field in Norway?

“Petroleum activities are associated with both major accident risk and personal injury risk.

“The annual survey ‘Risk level in Norwegian petroleum activities’ (RNNP) measures the effect of the industry’s work with safety. The measurements have shown steady improvement over many years, including important areas such as well control incidents, hydrocarbon leaks, and personal injury risk.

“The RNNP figures for 2020 were presented on March 25, 2021. The 2020 figures show that the safety level is high, but that some important areas (including land plants) are moving in the wrong direction.

“The press release from RNNP 2020 can be found here.”

Could you provide data on how many employees are injured each year? How many die? How many experience stress and/or mental distress?

“The overview below shows serious injuries and deaths in the petroleum activities on the Norwegian shelf in the last ten years.

YEAR2011201220132014201520162017201820192020
Serious injuries28232428301729253325
Deaths0000101000

The Norwegian petroleum activity also includes eight large land plants (refineries, gas facilities, etc.). Below are the same statistics for the land plants in the last decade.

YEAR2011201220132014201520162017201820192020
Serious injuries37135896979
Deaths0000000000

We do not have statistics for stress and/or mental distress in the petroleum business. We also refer to RNNP 2020.

Are Petroleum and Energy workers in Norway provided any benefits to help with mitigating danger and risk of stress? Especially during COVID?

“See answers above for all workers during COVID-19.”

Why is quarantining necessary for foreign workers in your sector even if they have tested negative?

“Foreign workers arriving in Norway have to enter a 10 days quarantine period (some exceptions for roles considered to be society-critical).

“Vaccination passports have not been introduced in Norway. Assessments of the technical requirements and what information a ‘vaccination passport’ should contain are being made by the EU and WHO. These assessments are also being made in Norway. It is up to the member states to decide on the use of such a passport.

“Quarantining is mandatory for all persons who have been to an area that necessitates quarantine upon arrival in Norway. This also applies to Norwegian citizens.

“Even though the test taken upon arrival is negative, it is still possible that the person is infected. Quarantine is, therefore, necessary to prevent asymptomatic persons spreading the virus.”

Do any energy/oil companies working in Norway have particularly poor conditions for workers, especially foreign workers?

“We have no statistics about that. You may check with the employees’ unions.”

The Union, again, has not answered us for over a month. We will publish answers from the Union and any additional institutions when and if we receive them.

Source: #Norway Today, #NorwayTodayNews

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