Thursday, June 07, 2007

Offshore Accountancy; Salute the Union, Jack!

MY fellow-blogger Dave Osler was remarking the other day on Labour's lack of enthusiasm for May Day, the international workers' day. "Instead, Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne are calling for an annual Britishness Day. Nothing wrong with that, in and off itself. British workers get few bank holidays than most of their counterparts in continental Europe anyway, so another one won’t go amiss. But within the context of current overall New Labour discourse, it’s another milestone in the drift towards increasingly strident nationalist rhetoric".

I'm old enough to remember listening to James Callaghan's songs of praise to imperialist Cold Warrior and Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin at a May Day rally in Salford; and Bessie Braddock promising in Hyde Park that a Labour government would make sure "Our Boys" in Aden were given "all the best tanks and helicopters to do their job". On the whole I'm glad we don't see so much of Labour leaders and their international outlook at May Day rallies anymore.

As for "Britishness", one of Dave's readers commented on the irony of ministers with names like Kelly and (Liam) Byrne enthusing over it. Byrne is Minister for Immigration and Asylum (perhaps that "for" should be "against") and Kelly has gone from Education to a new post, Communities and Local Government, also called the ministry for "integration". But don't forget Stalin the Great Russian was a Georgian.

For my part, I wondered whether Ruth Kelly's peculiar religious affiliation might suggest instead an "Opus Day"; but more constructively, as an exercise for celebrating "Britishness", I thought maybe as a change from waving the old Union Jack we could have trips around all the industries, utilities and institutions that were once British and hoist the appropriate flags for the present owners - French tricolour at the waterworks, Chinese flag over Rover, Russian at Stamford Bridge, Stars and Stripes over Old Trafford, Devonport naval dockyard, British Army tank transporters and Ealing's Cardinal dustcarts. Mind you the last three might also fly the Texas Lone Star as they're all run by Haliburton. It could all be very colourful, and an education for the youngsters.

I used to observe that Margaret Thatcher's injunction to British Airways to fly the flag was never applied to shipping companies. But nowadays the Red Duster could also be a flag of convenience, as companies can recruit abroad even for ferry routes, and are exempt from minimum wage laws.

Another example of employers' internationalism of course is the way company profits and bosses' earnings are rapidly shifted beyond reach of the Inland Revenue. Come to think of it, the Inland Revenue itself now rents its premises back from a company based in the Cayman Islands. Got their flag, then children? No, not that one, that's the place where the Ministry has sent your health files. And then there's the way workers can find to their surprise that they are now ostensibly employed by some (surely not fictitious?) company in a faraway land. I take this story from a report published by the Offshore Industries Liaison Committee, the union that organises workers on the oil rigs.

The Chalk Transfer
As far back as 1997 Blowout reported on how
Aberdeen-based Chalk Catering transferred its
workforce to SHRM Middle East as part of a NIC
tax-avoidance scam. The good offices of the
local trade union officials of TGWU and RMT
were used to make that mass transfer painless
for Chalk. The first inklings many of the
unsuspecting victims got of their new status as
foreign employees came on receiving wage slips
and other paraphernalia of employment
purportedly issued by their new bosses in the
United Arab Emirates (UAE). In reality, the
documents originated from Chalk’s Aberdeen
office but the pretence that no place of business
exists in the UK (for employer’s NIC tax
avoidance purposes) necessitated the use of
exotic letterheads.
The fiction was created that all employment
relations matters were from that point on solely
the responsibility of a Mr. Humble based in a
camp somewhere in the Arabian Desert. The ex-employer,
Chalk Catering, created a third
company in its Aberdeen base, which, we were
asked to believe, acted merely as the UK agent
and third-party intermediary for the UAE
employer. This third company would deal directly
with the trade unions in Aberdeen on collective
matters and with individual employees on
disciplinary and contractual matters, but the
outcomes of these “discussions” were to be
relayed back to Mr. Humble in the UAE for
executive decision-making.
For a period of time after the “transfer” a bit of
effort was made to maintain the semblance of a
paper trail that, were credulity stretched far
enough, could suggest that Mr. Humble ran the
industrial relations show in Aberdeen from UAE
on a real-time basis. The play-acting has long
since been replaced by a blasé
acknowledgement that the real action is in
Aberdeen, and has been all along.

I was looking up the OILC website after hearing that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers, RMT, is anticipating possible trouble in the Trade Union Congress if it merges with the oil union. RMT already organises seafarers and divers, so the link might make some sense. But the OILC, originally a rank-and-file movement that grew in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster, has never been recognised by the TUC.

That's a pity because OILC was not really a breakaway, but arose under conditions where existing shore-based unions had not made too good a job of organising the industry. Besides, if the TUC regards this as a backdoor entry, how come it never objected to the way the renegade EEPTU electrical union, notorious for poaching and strike-breaking for Rupert Murdoch, was able to come back in, through merger with the engineers, becoming in turn part of Amicus and now the new giant union Unite? I hope this is nothing to do with OILC exposing shenanigans, or down to the big boys of union bureaucracy insisting on getting their way.

Incidentally, on a positive note I was pleased to see that the TUC has sent a message of solidarity to Iraqi oil workers, who are fighting plans for privatisation and foreign oil concessions, and whose union leaders have been threatened with arrest for waging a strike. The sooner we realise we are all fighting the same multinational companies and the governments that do their bidding, and turn our energies away from anything that divides the workers, whether chauvinism or empire-building and infighting, the sooner we will really have something to wave flags about. Internationalist flags of course.
Workers of the world unite!

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