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The issue of work schedules for offshore personnel has been subject to constant discussion between government, employers and unions – leading to radical changes over 50 years.
Different systems for rotating personnel between work and leisure functioned in parallel on the drilling rigs during the early years of oil exploration in the Norwegian North Sea. The most common practice was nevertheless one week on and one off. To get a holiday, people carried on working offshore until they were entitled to three weeks free in one go.
However, this arrangement proved impractical – particularly for workers who going offshore or returning home on a Saturday or Sunday. They never got a full weekend off. To stagger such change-overs, the schedule was extended to eight days offshore with eight days free. One work period in five was also dropped, so every fifth free spell was 24 days long.
When Norway’s Working Environment Act (WEA) came into force in 1977, the permitted length of a continuous shift on land was cut. But there was no assurance that this would be applied offshore. In its original form, the Act did not permit the 12-hour working day normal on all offshore installations. So amendments were needed to adapt the legal provisions to fixed platforms.
The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate argued that reducing working time offshore was impractical, with the “special character” of the oil industry requiring exemptions. As early as 1975, however, Ekofisk operator Phillips Petroleum had agreed to working hours for its own personnel which accorded with the provisions proposed for the new Act. A royal decree of 9 July 1976 extended the existing Worker Protection Act, with certain exceptions, to the fixed installations offshore on a temporary basis.
The WEA was then applied to these facility in 1977. This meant that offshore workers had their working time regulated and acquired legal safeguards against unfair dismissal. After long discussions, the North Sea schedule was by and large established as two weeks working offshore and three weeks free on land.
But the WEA was not applied to floating units such as rigs, and working time in that part of the oil industry continued to be regulated by Norway’s Ship Labour Act.
An extra day
Norway’s legislation on paid holidays was amended in 1981 to give everyone a legal right to four weeks and one day off. The latter was nicknamed the “Gro Day” after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Labour premier of the day. This meant the two weeks on/three weeks off schedule now imposed too many working hours. It was decided that the extra would be compensated as 25 hours of overtime per year.
Agreement was reached in the 1986 collective pay negotiations on a 7.5-hour normal working day and a 37.5-hour week. Personnel both on land and offshore working a continuous shift also had their weekly hours cut 33.6. To comply with these new terms, the offshore schedule was altered to two weeks at work, three weeks ashore, two weeks at work and four weeks on land.
When the Gro Day was introduced in 1981, the Labour government originally proposed introducing a full week’s extra holiday in stages over three years. But that failed to materialise. In 2000, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) proposed a fifth holiday week for all employees, which would thereby reduce the number of hours in a work-year. That demand was accepted, and most workers could thereby enjoy five weeks off. This naturally had consequences offshore, but implementing it there was not a straightforward matter.
A schedule of two weeks at work and three/four weeks at home had been 19 hours short of a normal work-year. That was overcome by deducting this time from pay or leaving the first 11 hours of overtime unpaid.
The new holiday deal meant that an offshore worker would be doing 12 extra hours per year. This was initially paid as overtime, which the unions found unsatisfactory. They demanded the full holiday entitlement awarded to everyone else through the introduction of a schedule of two weeks on and four off. In 2002, the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF – today the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association) allowed local deals under the offshore agreements to adopt this two-four scheme. All the companies subject to these agreements introduced the new schedule. ConocoPhillips was among the operators to do this, in its case covering the Greater Ekofisk Area.
However, the two-four system meant workers were falling short of a work-year by 122 hours. Annual pay was thereby cut by 7.71 per cent to take account of the reduced time worked. Other conditions were also set on Ekofisk. The whole offshore organisation was to be reviewed to find efficiency gains, and the agreement specified that the change would not lead to an increase in the workforce.