After years of cutbacks and cost savings, Frode Alfheim can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. But the union activist believes the downturn has hit the industry’s reputation.
Heading for brighter times
We’ve been through a period of reduced activity and a climate debate which has attracted much attention at times,” says Alfheim. “That’s affected popular perception of the industry.”
He was recently elected president of the Norwegian Union of Industry and Energy Workers (IE), the biggest grouping of employees in the country’s petroleum sector.
“The industry’s been under pressure,” Alfheim notes. “Many of its personnel have seen their jobs go – IE has lost 10 000 members in Rogaland country [around Stavanger] alone in recent years.
“That’s obviously had some impact on the way this industry is regarded. It’s important for a great many people.”
While recognising that the downturn is not quite over, Alfheim says things are looking brighter. “Some companies are taking on workers, even if downsizing is still going on elsewhere.
“One of our most important roles as a union is to ensure good operating parameters, so people have jobs to go to. A viable industry is crucial – without it, we can discuss pay levels and the working environment until we’re blue in the face.”
His ambition is clear: “IE is going to grow and be a prominent organisation on the employee side – in relation to both employers and government.”
“Safety and the working environment are factors of great significance for the petroleum industry’s reputation,” Alfheim emphasises.
“We’ve had several major accidents with the loss of many lives in Norway’s oil sector, and we see that they affect a lot of people over a long time.
“Accidents and incidents get much attention. The main concern must be for people, but this is also about winning acceptance for continued petroleum operations.”
The industry will see this licence to operate weaken or be revoked if it comes across as an unsafe place to work, he maintains.
“We’ve fought tooth and nail in recent years to keep our heads above water. These have been hard times for the industry both on land and offshore.
“The oil companies have cut costs during this period. It’s now important to safeguard the job they’ve done and keep spending under control so that good, profitable projects can be realised.”
Among other prospects, he has great expectations for the forthcoming Johan Castberg development in the Barents Sea and the spin-offs this will give.
Before Alfheim was elected IE president in April, he spent seven years as vice-president. He succeeded Leif Sande, who had led the union for 17 years.
The new leader has advanced through the ranks in the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) since the early 1990s, but has also been heavily involved in national politics.
That includes serving as a political adviser for Labour Party ministers of defence (1996), trade and industry (1996-97) and labour and government administration (2001).
He is convinced that this aspect of his background will be beneficial in his role as union president. “That’s quite clear – it’s a big advantage to be politically experienced.
“A lot of our job in the IE is about getting politicians to see the links between industry and value creation and to understand our needs as a union.
“We’ll be a partner and a watchdog, a driving force and an ombudsman – including with politicians. We’re dependent on good and predictable operating parameters for our industry.”
Alfheim adds that the union has a clear expectation that impact assessments will soon be produced for opening the Nordland VI and VII and Troms II areas to petroleum activities.
“Sixteen years have passed without such assessments of the waters off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja. It’s important that the big parties find compromises. We must now make progress.”
He has several items on his “to do” list. One is extending the Working Environment Act to personnel on multipurpose vessels – now under consideration by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
Another issue which concerns him is to strengthen the bipartite collaboration between employees and management in the companies.
“I’m worried about this,” he admits. “When I meet industry leaders, such cooperation is one of things I ask them to get to grips with. It’s important that the companies comply with the regulatory requirements on worker participation.”
But Alfheim believes that tripartite collaboration in the petroleum industry, which also involves the government, functions well.
“A strong regulator is crucial here, but all three sides share a responsibility for making the partnership work,” he says.
On a number of occasions in recent years, the IE has been critical of the PSA and the way it has handled various issues.
“We still have areas where we disagree with the authority, and where I’d have liked to see it take a more aggressive approach,” Alfheim observes.
“We’ve been dissatisfied with some issues and conveyed that to the PSA, but I feel it’s got to grips with many of these in the past 18 months.
“At present, I see no grounds for maintaining that the regulator is failing to do its job. I’m confident the PSA is doing what needs to be done.”