Far removed from the routine jobs that we all know and the normal picture of life and far from the over-populated city, we visited the area of the Gulf of Suez to see for ourselves a unique form of employment that requires workers as unique as the job. The journey took hours for us, but as for the workers this journey lasts years, thwarting them from the deep blue sea to dry desert shores.  The stories of these workers are an endless tale, as soon as one ends another begins.

The fundamental essence of these stories revolves around the extraction of petroleum or, as the workers call it, black gold. Rig workers are divided into two groups; the first of these two groups are the workers employed with a permanent contract and therefore enjoy the benefits of medical and social insurance. As for the majority of the workers, they belong to the second group whom work on a temporary basis. For example, there are 1800 temporary employees in GUPCO, a company which operates several concessions in the Gulf of Suez and the Western Desert.

To begin an exploration into the lives of these workers we must first ensue with an explanation of the nature of the duties assigned to these men, especially rig workers and their assistants. These men either work on offshore rigs located in the sea or on onshore rigs located in the desert, a decision based on the exploration efforts of the operating company. After an area has chosen for production, the operator rents a rig for the job. Rigs are rented with a daily rate; for land rigs it is an average of $30,000 per day and for offshore rigs it’s around $60,000.

The operator rents these rigs from rig contractors, such as, for example, the Egyptian Drilling Company, which not only provides the rigs, but also engineers and technicians needed to operate the rigs. The contractor is then bestowed with the job of finding suppliers to scout for non-technicians, or unskilled workers. Needless to say, the unskilled labor force has neither rights nor benefits. The suppliers are opportunistic by nature, they take commission for their find and this commission can, at times, reach as high as 50% the laborers wages and on top of that they receive payment from the contractor.

Now, we can begin to explain the structure of the rig team, or all those involved in the operation of a rig. At the top of the management pyramid there is the head of the drilling mechanism; followed by his assistant, followed by the drilling engineer, then the drilling supervisor, then the physician of the site, then the industrial security engineer, and finally the drilling crew. The drilling crew consists of a drilling assistant and a large amount of bottom-rung workers. The bottom-rung workers are those that do the dirty, difficult work and get paid the least. Their work mainly depends on physical strength.

According to a source from GUPCO, most of these unskilled workers come from the Qena, Monfia and Sharkia governorates. During the beginning of the 20th century, oil companies in Texas, the pioneers of the oil industry, would get their laborers from prisons and have them do the menial work. It would seem that little has changed over the last century, for the exception that the men currently utilized are not imprisoned, or not, technically that is.

During our tour, we interviewed different rig workers and they explained in detail the nature of their work.  One worker said that his job is “to operate the rig and to supervise the spinning process and the counters for pressure and movements of gases.” He is also responsible for the decision-making in case of a gas leakage, during which he must close up the well. Another assistant drilling worker said that his role is to “supply the pipes with fluids to facilitate the drilling.” One of the riskier jobs found on a rig is that of a peak worker. He is stationed on the topmost part of the rig, which is situated approximately 50 meters high and is responsible for placing the drilling pipes into the rig.

Another worker said that they work on a daily rate system and get paid per day and have no financial rights. On the other hand, another worker, who also works on the peak of the rig said that he really enjoys what he does and that there is no danger in his work because he gets secured to the rig by several ropes, which prevents him from falling.

Yet another worker said that he has been working in this field for many years and he sees that this labor lacks several factors, especially rights for the workers who leave their families for months on end without even taking a vacation. The worker added that they do most of the arduous work alone with no help from the permanent workers, while it is the permanent workers who enjoy the benefits of financial and medical security, “despite the fact that we are the ones who train the permanent labor force and have been doing so for the past 30 years.” The worker also stated that they are aware of the fact that the petroleum industry brings in plenty of profit but the workers only see a diminutive portion of that profit.

As for the security and safety regulations that the drilling companies abide by, an industrial security engineer who works on one of the rigs in the Gulf of Suez said that the security system operates on the same level as the system of production; meaning that, the safety of the workers and engineers who work on the rig is considered to be a factor leading to more production without financial loss. Thus, there is a number of surveillance equipment that supervises the process of production and the industrial security engineer monitors all aspects of the work in order to assure the safety of all employees and intercedes in the case of any clear and present danger, such as fire accidents or the deliverance of first aid to employees.

The industrial security engineer also discussed the dangers that workers face during the drilling process. The most common danger is found in the industrial waste that is produced during the process of production; the second risk found in the job is fire injuries, which occur during the exploration phase with wells that have a high concentration of hydrogen sulfates, which are extremely flammable and can incinerate a human body within 10 minutes. It is for this reason that rig workers have very specific uniforms that are flame retardant and that are extremely tight on the skin in order to prevent any gases from coming in contact with the workers’ flesh.  

Finally, one of the engineers that work on an onshore rig asserted that Egypt is witnessing a rare and unique phenomenon in the rig market in regards to their workers: due to the rise of oil prices on the international front, rig workers are migrating from Egypt to Gulf countries because the wages there are better. The engineer added that “despite the fact that oil prices are rising internationally and there is a unified pricing system in all exporting and importing countries around the world, the labor market in Egypt does not have a unified wage system for its labor force; therefore, Egyptian petroleum workers prefer working abroad where there is a standard wage system implemented.”

By Rasha Azab

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