It’s “Oil First, People Second”, Just Like In Soviet Times

From People And Nature An interview with Mirvari Gahramanli, chairperson of Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization, about the disaster on the Guneshli no. 10 oil platform on 4 December last year. For an overview, read Break the silence on Azerbaijan oil workers’ deaths.

Gabriel Levy: How did the company, and the workers, react to the tragedy as it happened?

Mirvari Gahramanli: First I got phone calls from relatives of workers on platform no. 10. They asked for help. “It’s on fire”, they said. At first I didn’t speak directly to those on the platform. Pressure is put on workers [if they communicate with non-government groups]. Then I began to write [on social media]; I called several news agencies.

Mirvari Gharamanli
I called [the national oil company] Socar. I told them, there’s a terrible situation there. People are dying. There’s a major fire. No reaction. … Then, every half hour, every hour, as I received information, I wrote it up on Facebook. The workers’ families began to correspond with me, began to find out what was going on. You know that in Soviet times they used to cover up such information [e.g. about industrial accidents]. They thought that the families didn’t need to know, the families didn’t need to worry. That was wrong. […]

[Mirvari began to receive calls from the platform.] They said that they had got on board the lifeboats. Socar [managers] gave the order to board, so we did, they said. We waited. At twenty to eleven, the calls stopped coming. The lifeboat was in the water. I was afraid to write [on Facebook] that the boat had fallen, and was in the water at night. But presumably Socar knew. [Socar put out a statement at midnight saying that there were no known casualties.] […]

[Soon after this, bad news came through.] One lifeboat had broken in two. I straight away wrote: the evacuation was not carried out correctly; no phone calls are coming through. I was told: the procurator won’t like that. I said, that’s his business, let him do his job. They thought I was kicking up a row.

I asked questions. Why did the lifeboat break in two? Why were those workers in it [in the first place]? There are living quarters on the platform. And above that is a helipad. The platform was built in Soviet times: it’s a very solid structure indeed. The walls are fireproof and designed to withstand shocks from the strongest earthquakes. If those workers had stayed in the living quarters, they might still be alive today. […]

When those people fell into the sea, none of them could hold on to the legs of the platform. Three or four were saved by a rescue craft that made it into that area.

My question is: if the first rescue craft could get to that area, why couldn’t others? Another question. Why were those particular lifeboats in use? When were they last examined? Why were there 26 people in one boat, and 40 in the other? There are many questions.

GL: Are there lessons to be learned?

MG: Yes. First, the evacuation was poorly implemented, and the search was poorly executed. Second, when the sea is like it was, when there is that sort of stormy weather, it is forbidden for people to remain platforms, piers and such installations. People are supposed to be taken out of there. On the same day, at Oil Rocks, three workers fell into the sea and are missing, presumed dead.

There were a number of workers who must stay there at all times, out at sea – operators, those with specific safety responsibilities – because oil is flowing at all times. But there were a large number of other people on that rig: drillers, people from the catering service, and others. There were 18 people on that rig who could have been evacuated in good time [since they were not needed during bad weather conditions.]

Those who should have been responsible for these people’s safety are guilty.

GL: To clarify: you are saying that under storm conditions, the correct practice is to reduce the number of people on the rig to a minimum.

MG: Not only the correct practice, the practice required by law. The Labour Code of Azerbaijan includes a paragraph that states in which conditions people should work. It sets out precisely the working practices for storms of various levels of severity. In this case, we were dealing with a storm in excess of force ten [on the Beaufort scale]. Our ministry of ecology issues warnings on such conditions.

Socar has come back at me, saying, “BP [the operator of the largest oil and gas fields in the Caspian] didn’t evacuate their staff, either.” My response is: “I am talking about the law. Not about BP. I am not interested in discussing BP. Nothing happened on BP’s field.”

There are questions about the days preceding the tragedy. Somebody contacted me to say: a few days earlier, on the 1st or 2nd of December, we, workers of the “28 May” oil production department, reported that there was a gas leak that needed to be dealt with in one of the [undersea] pipelines. But these workers were told not to stop production. [When this question was raised publicly,] the reaction [from Socar] was to do an about-turn. They said, well it wasn’t a gas leak that caused the fire.

Repair work at platform no. 10, 5 December 2015. Photo: OWRPO site
I have another question: why was that pipe apparently badly supported? Were there breaches of safety regulations there?

Who was guilty? Oh, [sarcastically] the workers of course. As for the managers, there has been an investigation in progress for more than six months, there’s been no indication from the procurator as to who was guilty.

GL: And in your view, where does the responsibility lie?

MG: Responsibility is with the company’s managers. People should have been evacuated in a timely way. Attention should have been paid to these safety issues. But the human factor comes at the end. It’s “oil first, people second”, just like in Soviet times. The human factor is devalued. It should be other way round: people first, and then the oil.

We’re endlessly writing letters and statements about these safety issues. As for the [officially sanctioned oil workers’] trade union, they should be monitoring workplaces. They are not interested in letters and statements. They are not interested in investigating the causes of the accident. They helped with a bit of money to the families, that’s all. And we are talking about human lives here.

GL: Your organisation has been critical of the way families were treated. Why?

MG: In Russia, for example, in such a situation, all the families are brought together in one place. There is coffee, tea, psychologists, volunteers. While this emergency was going on, I was saying [to the authorities]: please, gather the relatives in one place. Bring your psychologists, your coffee and tea, your volunteers. [A centre was set up, but badly managed.] I denounced our health ministry, asking them, where was the psychologist? They said they provided one. They were lying. There was no psychologist. People were crying and wailing. It was simply awful. Some people were thrown out of there: I have this on video.

The next day [after the accident], Socar held a press conference. They had written, earlier, that no-one had died. Of those that were missing they insisted that they had not died: they were so happy about that. On the next day, they had to change their tune. […]

GL: Are there other issues that need to be brought out?

MG: Yes. There is an issue of life jackets. I was at the hospital [visiting oil workers injured during the accident], and spoke with the senior doctor. She said, those [workers] who were rescued did not have life jackets.

People kept telling me that there were life jackets in the lifeboats, that in the living quarters on the platform were life jackets. But at sea, in that sort of storm, people have to wear life jackets, heavy or not. I found photographs that show they were not wearing life jackets. They showed that when the first lifeboat was released to the sea – the one on which the passengers survived – they were not wearing life jackets.

I posted this on Facebook and they [Socar managers] went crazy. “Why are you saying this?” But it was not only the photos. People were brought to hospital, with no sign of any life jackets. So I started saying: “Very interesting. And where were their life jackets?” They said: they had them. They said, perhaps the workers became frightened [in the course of the emergency], and failed to put them on. I said: “That’s no answer. There was somebody [on the platform] responsible for upholding safety standards. So that person didn’t fulfil his responsibility, but saved himself.” A second possibility is that there were too few life jackets in the lifeboats. […]

GL: You said that in Soviet times, it was “oil first, people second”. How can we change this? Is it about safety culture, about transparency?

MG: Here’s a comparison. Consider the platforms – BP’s, and Socar’s. BP’s are new, with new equipment. The Socar platforms are from the Soviet period. A couple of years ago, BP ran into some problems on one of their platforms. They evacuated it straight away. And started to investigate. Socar, by contrast, appear not to worry, not to react.

In our industrial culture, if a worker dies, or receives some sort of injury, then – in Soviet times, and still now – there are managers whose instinct is to cover it up. I could understand the logic on Soviet times: the fewer breaches [of safety regulations] there were, the better chance of receiving bonus payments. And now? There is no comparable bonus system. So why cover things up?

The second point: workplaces are not properly inspected. People don’t receive proper training. Why? Firstly, there is a lack of skill and sensitivity to these issues, a lack of professionalism with regard to safety, too few specialists. And there’s a lack of humanity. People don’t know the labour law. If someone wants to say “I’m the boss, I’m in charge”, the first thing they need to concern themselves with is health and safety at work. That’s his first duty.

GL: You say that safety and transparency go together. Please explain.

MG: My Facebook page has become my home. People contact me there, send me messages there. […] People don’t have a voice. Transparency gives them a voice. For example, Socar built a new headquarters – 40 stories. The contract to build it was won by Tekfen, a close partner of Socar. I started to write: what’s the point of this building? Why do you need it? Tekfen won the contract despite the fact that previous contracts have run over budget and past the deadline. The details were not open to the press, not open to the public.

But the biggest issue is safety. In 2014, 19 people were killed in the oil industry at workplaces, of which 16 were killed at Socar workplaces. There were two accidents caused by the collapse of structures in the Narimanov sector; in one of these, four workers who had been carrying out repairs fell into the sea and drowned. After this, in 2015, there should have been greater vigilance, greater concern for safety issues. But in 2015, there were 40 deaths. Most of these were in the two accidents on 4th December. I didn’t see any change, any improvement. […]

There is no accountability for the managers in Socar. I am constantly accusing the company of keeping managers who do not protect workers’ safety, and who are not held accountable for their failures. These managers have impunity. I asked about the accident: why hasn’t anyone been disciplined? Why hasn’t anyone been arrested? Why hasn’t anyone been held responsible?

GL: What would you advise workers to do?

MG: A great deal depends on workers themselves, of course. I say to them: the first thing is, know your rights. When a collective agreement is signed, make sure you know what’s in it. Respect yourself and your family; make sure that your family is not left without you.

But knowing your rights is the most important thing. Workers stand accused of not knowing their rights! And if they don’t, they can not defend themselves or their workmates. They can not form their own independent union, and get out of that [officially sanctioned] union that stops [i.e. deducts from source] 1% of their salary each month, whether they like it or not.

The trade union is an informal structure of the employer. When people are “elected” (in quotation marks) to positions in it, the employer gives its blessing. If that person defends the workers’ interests, s/he is soon recalled and someone else is “elected”.

I gave support to a number of workers who quit the [yellow] union. If they leave, they soon find themselves getting threatened by the employer. Why did you leave? they ask them. I say to workers: “Unite together. Defend your rights.”

People get rights from God, and from the law of the land. They need to defend them.

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