By Dave Mizon and Sue Bolton
MELBOURNE — The strike by Bass Strait oil rig workers is entering its fourth week. The workers took action after Esso locked out workers coming on to the rigs on July 26 and stranded the rostered shift on the rigs. The company insisted that employees would have to accept fundamental changes to their working conditions and employment contract.
For the last month, the striking workers have picketed the heliport at Longford, near Sale, in an attempt to stop scab labour from getting to the rigs. The company is using aerodromes in surrounding towns and open paddocks to fly out strikebreakers. When the strikers occupied the helicopters and the heliport to show their readiness to start their shifts, they were evicted by police.
Last week, the workers changed tactics, 140 of them picketing the central office of Esso in Melbourne. The aim was to publicise the dispute, which has received very little media attention. Picketers handed out leaflets, including one comparing their living conditions on the rigs with the living conditions of prisoners in the Sale prison.
The tactical change appears to have been successful: the company has agreed to resume negotiations with all delegates. It previously wanted negotiations split between the workers directly employed by Esso and those employed by contractors.
At the core of the dispute is a massive attack on the wages, conditions and jobs of offshore workers. In a manner reminiscent of the Kurnell refinery dispute, management terminated all industrial agreements, distributing among its workers the "white booklet" which outlines the conditions that the company is seeking to impose, including:
- reduced support staff, so that operators on 12-hour night shift would have to do their own cooking, cabin cleaning and washing;
- multiskilling between rig operators and specialist service providers;
- changes to rosters, resulting in a decrease in time off and earnings.
Other issues still pending include compulsory drug and alcohol testing of workers, reduced operators on the rigs, a return to a 40-hour work week and fewer workers on some of the platforms, with the aim of eventually operating Barracouta rig by remote control.
During the dispute there has been speculation about BHP buying Esso out from Bass Strait. Both companies have publicly welcomed the opportunities opened up to them by the deregulation and privatisation of gas and fuel. This indicates that the dispute has been triggered by their expanding business ambitions.
Despite the physical isolation of the picket line, the striking workers' morale and determination remain high, fuelled by their knowledge that any changes imposed on them will flow on to the rest of the petrochemical industry.
Messages of support can be telephoned to 019 198 298. For more information about the strike phone (03) 9866-8887.