Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

"Shift-Ing Lives": Work-Home Pressures in the North Sea Oil Industry

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

"Shift-Ing Lives": Work-Home Pressures in the North Sea Oil Industry

Article excerpt

"Put in a nutshell, it's like being dead for two weeks on a health farm. There's no drink, you eat the best of grub and you go home like superman with your balls full."

A welder talking about the experience of offshore employment

For better or worse, we live in a world dominated by organizations. While contemporary corporations facilitate economic and social survival, their practices may also lead to large-scale disasters (e.g., Shrivastava, 1987). This article examines the North Sea oil and gas industry, which is of vital economic and social significance to the U.K. Since the beginning of North Sea exploration in 1975 over 400 workers have died and many others have been seriously injured in offshore accidents (Woolfson et al., 1997). In 1988, 167 oil workers lost their lives in the Pipa Alpha disaster. These grim figures illustrate the potentially destructive power of organizations. The following analysis is concerned with more routine, everyday pressures and tensions in the paid work and domestic lives of offshore workers that are shaped by the power relations, inequalities and working practices of the North Sea oil industry.

Power relations in the U.K. offshore sector are particularly asymmetrical (Carson, 1982). This article concentrates on the interrelated ways that these asymmetrical power relations are manifest in the management, first of subcontract labour and, second of time-space separations. In the U.K. offshore sector, platform work is allocated through a highly competitive bidding process in which the main operators invite numerous contractor companies to tender for a fixed term contract, typically of between one and two years. For the operator the extensive use of contingent labour is intended to sustain their power and flexibility while minimizing fixed costs. For the contract workers, however, it means that employment is particularly insecure. While permanent operator employees work mainly in supervisory, technical and specialist functions within the installation, contract workers are employed to do the dirtiest, most physically demanding and dangerous work in the most exposed areas of the platform.

This tendency for organizations to retain only an in-house set of core activities, while contracting-out other work either to low cost or to more specialized sub-contractors, has been growing in recent years (Blyton and Turnbull, 1998). Harrison (1994) suggests that in addition to cost-cutting, managers may prefer outsourcing because they can quickly increase the labour force when demand periodically exceeds supply and when there is a need to buy-in specialist skills. Allen and Henry (1996) argue that this shift in the division of labour divides labour, renders employment highly precarious and results in the loss of employment rights and protections. It can also have a disciplinary impact on the direct labour force (O'Connell Davidson, 1990). While outsourcing may be a relatively recent phenomenon in certain industries, in others, like the U.K. oil industry, it is well established (Woolfson et al., 1997). Moreover, in the North Sea, contract workers constitute a majority of the platform workforce. The following discussion seeks to examine the experience of sub-contract work from the perspective of workers on North Sea oil installations. It highlights the economic pressures they face, both offshore and onshore.

The potential for tensions and crises in the lives of oil workers is also related to the routine organization of offshore time and space. Platforms operate twenty-four hours a day and crews are split into two twelve-hour shifts, working days or nights. Workers are flown out to an installation on a journey that can take over four hours from the Aberdeen heliport. They work, eat, relax and share leisure facilities. On the installation many also have to share cabins, toilets and shower facilities. In this sense, platforms resemble a total institution (Goffman, 1968) since for fixed periods workers are confined to the installation, separated from the mainland and their families. …

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