A brief exchange with a Brazilian oil rig worker, 2007

A brief exchange with a Brazilian oil rig worker, 2007

This is a short documentation of an informal letter exchange. A friend from Brazil tidies up his electronic inbox having some spare time on the oil-rig. He comes across a one and a half year old mail from Berlin, posted on a PGA mailing list. It is call for solidarity with Honda workers who have been beaten up by the police in a suburb of Delhi during summer 2005. Some letters go back and forth. Here is a summary...

The other day in Cyberspace
Brazilian oil worker bumps into Berlin activist engaged in Indian car workers' solidarity

Berlin, Lebanese Internet Café: (...) We were mainly influenced by Italian Operaism before Negri took an overdose of magic mushrooms. And I like the early Saramago, as well. And your job? I have no idea what kind of status oil workers have in Brazil. Is it difficult to get such a job?
Brazil, Oil Rig: I'm also a very fan of Saramago. I used to say during some time that I was marxista-saramaguista, but I was leaving this "tendency" some time ago, on the Cuban question. About my work here, first of all you should try to google: oilrig, then you see a common picture of my workplace. The rig I work is medium size, with about 240 workers. We come here by helicopter, cause it's 80 km offshore, and we stay here for 14 days. Then we got 14 days (in my case 21 days) of "vacations", depending on the kind of work. When we are on board, we work 12 hours a day, during day and night, so you can imagine that I also hate wage work, and I really want to abolish it!

There are two "kinds of worker" on the rig. Those like me, who are employed by the Brazilian public company (Petrobras) and those who are employees of other companies which provide services to Petrobras (so-called 'contratados'). On my rig about half of the workers are from contractors. The main difference between permanents and contract workers is not the wage, but the jobs duties. The contracted workers get the less technical work, cleaning, cooking, painting, carrying weight, and some other things I don't know how to say it in English... (like building some small platform, when people need to work on a place difficult to get to).

Officially, there's no hierarchy between permanents and contract workers, but sometimes it is possible to feel it. Anyway, there is a positive approach concerning this trouble among the workers themselves, they generally try to make things equal. A great difference indeed is the duration of work. Cause we work 14 and have 21 of vacation, and they are still on 14-14. The permanent workers have more rights, a certain stability and a good income, although it is lower than the average in the oil industry. Compared to a normal industrial worker the wage might be twice as high, mainly because of the extra-pay for dangerous work. Whoever has the opportunity to choose usually prefers to work here on the rigs, mainly because of the job security.

The others, who are contract workers, have lower incomes and mainly longer working hours. In order to be employed by the state owned company (which as a matter of fact is only half owned by the Brazilian State) you need to pass on a public test, that is sort of difficult. When I did it there were more than a hundred thousand 'fighting' for 700 or 800 hundred vacancies! You need to be a technician or something similar for most of the place, and at least completed high school. For the 'contrados' its more like a recruitment in the market. These two groups have different trade unions and nowadays there isn't any movement of them together. As a permanent you have to do a six months course before starting to work. You learn technical stuff, about mechanics, electricity, chemistry, mainly focused on oil production. It was a good course.

For most of these workers the job is seen as a life opportunity. Although being on the rig day in day out gets boring. People are always counting how many days are still left, when someone is seen without the uniform, which means he will take the helicopter, he is normally also showing an 'unhideable' smile.

Berlin, Lebanese Internet Cafe: What about the importance of the Brazilian oil sector? Do you have to be scared that some people might suddenly spread rumours of Brazilian weapons of mass destruction, or can you expect the coming of a father christmas like Chavez?
Brazil, Oil Rig: I guess neither. Nowadays Brazil has equilibrium between production and consumption. So it's only as important as it makes the country move, but it's not a source of dividends like in other oil producing countries. 80% of Brazil oil is produced on 'Bacia the Campos' fields, where I work. I guess there are roughly one hundred oil-rigs similar to the one I am working on.

There is some institutional information which informs us about other rigs, but it is nothing important. But unofficially, well, generally you know someone on a different rig, the other guy knows someone else, and so info is circulating. We can call people on other rigs by phone. And there are some conflicts, mainly about health and safety.

The last big movement was in 1995, lots of people got dismissed, and the incomes were cut for lots of days when the strike was on, but some people now receive compensation for having been dismissed illegally. This is about as much Christmas you get with 'Lulinha', our president. These last days, I had even some talks about global warming, people are somehow concerned with this question, possibly more than outside. I guess it is due to the connection with production.

Berlin, Lebanese Internet Cafe: So what are you up to when you are not rigging?
Brazil, Oil Rig: I'm on FLP from Rio de Janeiro, part of the squatters or homeless movement. We took part in the occupation of three buildings in Rio during the last two years. It's a growing movement inside the cities. And it's somehow connected with the landless movement, as it was a source of inspiration. Mainly working people squat houses, there are some few houses squatted by young left people, but it's another movement, even when they're well related. Rent is often more than 30% of a family's income, but inside the favelas, many people don't pay taxes or rents. The occupations are big, generally with more than 100 and sometimes more than a thousand people involved. In São Paulo they occupied a piece of land (that was owned by Volkswagen...) with some 5 or 6000. They had a strike in Belgium right now, didn't they? Some activists (students mainly) and some trade unions support the squats, but the movement is mainly autonomous…

If you want to get in touch, particularly if you work in or on the oil sector, please write to: ogrc_br at yahoo.com

[prol-position news #8 | 4/2007] www.prol-position.net