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MEXICO: Oil Workers at Sea Without a Safety Net

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 13 2010 (IPS) - The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reawakened concerns about labour conditions on Mexican drilling platforms.

Oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico Credit: Photostock

Oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico Credit: Photostock

Restrictions on trade union freedoms, lack of insurance and health coverage, low wages, poor training and corrupt practices are some of the irregularities prevailing in Mexico’s private oil industry, according to union leaders and experts.

“Workers hired by private contractors do not have the training for offshore drilling,” Ysmael García, interior secretary of the Mexican seafarers’ union, OCPNRM, told IPS.

“Contractors and subcontractors are only interested in making money,” said García, whose union represents more than 300 members in private companies.

Some 100 platforms operate in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico’s main oil-producing region in the Gulf, which employ around 20,000 workers, 4,000 of whom work for the state oil company PEMEX, and the rest for private firms.

Public and private employees belong to different worlds, with those working for the state company enjoying health insurance and medical care, while workers in the private sector are virtually unprotected in an inherently dangerous work environment, exposed to extreme climate phenomena, such as storms or high or low temperatures.

“Mexico is at the bottom of the world league table in terms of health, inspections and industrial safety. It is a very bad situation,” Norrie McVicar, the chair of the Offshore Task Force Group for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), told IPS.

The situation in the offshore oil industry was one of the issues addressed at the 42nd ITF World Congress, attended by delegates from 368 unions in 112 nations who met Aug. 5-12 in Mexico City.

The London-based ITF launched a campaign in 2005 to promote safety in offshore oil activities and report violations of workers’ rights.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig, belonging to the Swiss firm Transocean Ltd and leased by London-based oil giant BP, caught fire Apr. 20 off the coast of the southeastern U.S. state of Louisiana and sank two days later.

Eleven workers were killed in the accident, and 17 were injured. A total of 126 people worked on the rig, of whom 79 were hired by Transocean and six by BP. The rest were casual workers.

In September 2008, delegates from 45 countries belonging to the ITF task force visited the Bay of Campeche to document labour conditions on the oil rigs.

The visit gave rise to the report “Campeche Basin: Paradigm of Labour Exploitation”, by Mexican journalist Ana Pérez.

There have been some 5,000 complaints over labour conflicts with contractors providing services for PEMEX in the last decade, according to the Labour and Social Security Ministry.

Workers usually remain on the drilling rigs for periods of 14 or 28 days, followed by equivalent periods of shore leave.

In 2003, the non-governmental Centre for Action and Reflection on Labour Rights (CEREAL) accused a group of platform lessors in Mexico of being some of the worst violators of labour laws.

“There are three classes of workers on the platforms: foreign nationals, PEMEX workers and private workers, and they are treated differently in law. It’s cheaper for companies to hire untrained personnel. The authorities know about these irregularities but they do nothing about them,” lawyer Víctor Cruz told IPS.

His father, Israel Cruz, represented the families of 247 crew members of a ship contracted by PEMEX which sank in the Bay of Campeche in 1993, reaching a successful out-of-court settlement with the ship’s operators.

The PEMEX drilling rig Usumacinta collided with the Kab 101 oil well platform in the same waters in October 2007, causing the death of 21 people and injuring 19. Víctor Cruz is the legal representative of a group of survivors and relatives of the deceased in suits before Mexican and U.S. courts against the oil company and manufacturers of the damaged structures.

PEMEX reported 161 accidents in 2009, and a frequency rate of 0.42 per million man-hours worked, a lower rate than in 2008. For contractors, the equivalent figures were 137 and 0.51, respectively.

“Many accidents never reach the public. The solution is to put pressure on PEMEX for it to put an end to this corrupt way of doing things,” said Muñoz, a graduate of the Naval College in the southeastern state of Veracruz, who has been a union leader since 2000.

Under federal regulations on safety, hygiene and the work environment, and other laws, PEMEX has a duty to inspect labour conditions. In 2005 the state company put in place an evolving programme on safety, health and environmental protection, although this has not eliminated labour accidents.

McVicar has proposed the creation of an autonomous regulatory body to develop transparent practices and strict management of occupational safety risks.

Three members of the ITF Offshore Task Force met with Mexican authorities Monday to discuss the issue, and received assurances that there would be supervision of the oil platforms, a new development.

“But supervision will not suit PEMEX, because it would have to take on a number of commitments. I think one solution is for all workers, without exception, to be covered by insurance policies worth millions of dollars, as the foreign oil companies usually take out,” said Cruz.

Mexico does not abide by the provisions of the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, with later amendments, or the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, originally approved in 1914 and last updated in 1974, IPS’ sources say.

Furthermore, Mexico has still not ratified the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention of 2006, which could come into effect next year if it is ratified by at least 30 countries. Panama is the only Latin American country to have done so.

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