April 16, 2023
Petroleum Contract Workers Marching towards First National Strike

Sudip Dutta

FOR the first time in the history of India, contract workers in the petroleum sector are gearing up for a national strike. They gathered at a national convention on April 6, 2023 in New Delhi, where contract workers from across the country resolved to organise a series of protest movements and culminate in a one-day national strike later this year. This unprecedented move is expected to raise the level of resistance and defiance among petroleum workers to unprecedented heights against the current authoritarian, anti-worker, and anti-national regime at the centre.

The convention was organised by the Petroleum and Gas Workers' Federation of India (PGWFI), which has been at the forefront of addressing the concerns of contract workers since its inception in 2006. PGWFI has organised three all-India conventions to discuss and raise the issues affecting contract workers. As part of this ongoing effort, the convention on April 6th was organised, with workers from various regions of the country representing major oil PSUs and all segments of the industry, including upstream, downstream, and OMCs, participating.

This convention was held at a crucial juncture when contract workers have already emerged as the dominant workforce in India's mainstream production and service sectors. In petroleum companies, they are the driving force behind both core and non-core operations, with the ability to disrupt or sustain the entire production process at a moment's notice. Leveraging their strength, capacity, and influence, contract workers in the petroleum sector are now planning to revamp and reorient their intervention and action plans for the future.

Indeed, casualisation, contractualisation, and outsourcing of the workforce in various forms have been persistent practices in exploration, refinery, and marketing services for some time. However, with the advent of automation and modernisation of technologies, the decline of permanent workers in production has accelerated significantly. And, the contract workers whose numbers have been steadily increasing, are engaged in core and skilled jobs.

The petroleum sector comprises three major segments: upstream, middle-stream, and downstream. Over the past two-three decades, significant field jobs in the upstream sector, such as oil field survey, field development, exploration, and production, have been increasingly outsourced to private groups. Currently, contract workers are involved in core operational tasks such as de-waxing, tapping, and holing. Moreover, the contract workforce now exclusively handles critical roles in rig operation, mudding, pressure control and monitoring, and scrapping. It is noteworthy that the jobs performed by contract workers are not only core and important, but also require high technological skills and labour-intensive efforts. It is evident that the contract workforce has progressively gained control over the entire core production processes.

Similarly, in the downstream sector, particularly in refineries, a significant portion of core maintenance jobs, such as operating electrical substations, refrigeration, and vehicle operations, are carried out by contract workers. Furthermore, there has been an increasing trend of engaging apprentices to perform these tasks. Notably, there has been no recruitment in the ministerial category for the past few years. Moreover, the most modern operations, including research and development, have been entirely privatised and outsourced in many cases. In fact, the reality today is that the operation of LPG plants and terminals would come to a standstill without the contribution of contract workers, and any disruption or strike by them can have a significant impact on the overall functioning of these facilities.

In the petroleum sector, pipeline operation involves a vast network of tasks, including the pumping of crude oil from ships to refineries, transportation of refinery products between stations, pumping of natural gas and LPG across states, and other related activities. Currently, a major portion of pipeline jobs has been outsourced to contractors. Maintenance of pipelines, pigging, scrapping, and other operations are regularly carried out by contract workers. Additionally, many pipeline security jobs have been contracted out to private security agencies, and some pipelines have been completely leased to contractors. These phenomena of pipeline outsourcing can be associated with the privatisation agenda of the Modi government. Under the National Monetisation (Privatisation) Pipeline plan, 3,930 km of product + LPG pipelines are set to be handed over to private entities by 2025. This entire process can be seen as the privatisation of assets and manpower in various forms and avenues.

Globally, workers in the petroleum sector are known to be among the highly paid. However, unfortunately, contract workers in the Indian petroleum sector are often paid significantly lower wages. The government of India has not yet established a scheduled uniform minimum wage specifically for the petroleum sector. Currently, contract workers in the petroleum sector are often paid the minimum wage stipulated for road and building construction category, despite the fact that the nature of work in the petroleum sector is vastly different, involving high technical skills and exposure to risks. Most concerning is that in some places, due to extreme economic distress and compulsion, contract workers are forced to work for wages below the stipulated minimum or agreed fair wages. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

In the majority of cases, contract workers in the petroleum sector have been excluded from ESI (Employees' State Insurance) benefits. They do not have access to retirement benefits, and when they retire, they often leave with empty hands. Even in cases where gratuity is not linked or mentioned in their wages, contract workers do not receive it. Additionally, obtaining their own PF (Provident Fund) money often requires multiple visits to PF offices.

A large section of contract workers are employed in hazardous areas where harmful chemicals and gases are present. Lack of proper safety measures results in severe health issues for the workers. For instance, in the refinery segment, chemicals like MIBK (Methyl iso-Butane Ketene) are used in wax processing units, which are highly poisonous and can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as potentially lead to cancer. Similarly, other highly toxic chemicals like DMDS and IPN are used in refineries. Safety measures are highly inadequate, and regular medical checkups are not conducted in many cases. In some instances, contract workers are not provided with proper protective gear such as gloves while handling these chemicals, putting their health and safety at risk.

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In the oil fields, contract workers often work in risky situations without proper safety protection, particularly when working at heights during drilling operations. Devastating accidents occur frequently in offshore and onshore works, with tragic consequences. For example, in 2021, 86 contract workers lost their lives during a cyclone in the Arabian Sea while working for ONGC. Similarly, in the same year, a fire incident at Haldia Refinery resulted in the death of three contract workers. In each of these accidents, contract workers have had to sacrifice their lives.

The core vulnerability of contract workers stems from their insecure employment relations. Contract workers are always at risk of being terminated by the management at any time. Therefore, the support and participation of permanent workers in the struggle of contract workers is crucial for their protection.

The objective necessity of mutual support and unity between permanent and contract workers has now reached a critical stage. With the rapid reduction in the number of permanent workers and the increasing recruitment of contract workers in core operational jobs, there will soon come a time when permanent workers will be completely redundant in the industry. Today, there are numerous instances in various industries where massive plants are being run by thousands of contract workers without a single permanent job. The collective bargaining and striking capacity of permanent workers is decreasing day by day and will be at stake in no time.

If both permanent and contract workers come together, they will have the numbers, strength, striking power, experience, recognition, and a larger perspective. This will bring about a qualitative change in the entire course of the struggle and enhance the capacity for collective bargaining, resistance, and defiance to an unprecedented level. Contract workers, due to their numbers and strategic placement in the core of the industry, have to now take the responsibility of the anti-privatisation struggle and lead the movement.

The cornerstone of this united struggle must be the political ideology of the working class, not limiting the struggle to their own economic issues, but leading towards a broader struggle with greater responsibility to protect the interests of all sections of the toiling masses, people, and the nation. The nucleus of this struggle should be the political ideological task of the anti-privatisation movement. The convention adopted a milestone resolution in this direction, planning to hold a series of campaign programmes culminating in the first-ever national strike of petroleum contract workers at the end of this year. This will open a new avenue of struggle, energise the petroleum sector workers to heighten their resistance and defiance, and bring the issue of petroleum contract workers into the focus of the Indian working class movement.