Don’t let North Sea oil workers be forgotten in Covid crisis – Christine Jardine MP

When you switch on the oven or drive past a petrol station, think about what Covid-19 might mean for the people who made those things possible, writes Christine Jardine MP.

Oil rig workers, particularly self-employed ones, should be given the same help as the rest of us (Picture: Hamish Campbell)

It is very easy to forget about, or not believe, something if you don’t see it.

Every night I put on the oven and gas hob as I try to create something different from the contents of my cupboard or switch on the TV to escape from the global crisis that is dominating most waking hours.

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Then every few days I pop our in the car to replenish food stocks and it’s only when I pass the petrol station in Corstorphine, with fuel prices at rock bottom, that my mind flits briefly to the industry that has made all of those things possible, and the people who work in it.

I suspect I am not alone in that.

Yet at this moment in our history those people, and the supply chain they are part of, are perhaps more crucial than at any time in our recent history.

To respect them, and what they go through each day so we can be warm, fed and able to travel is not to abandon your green credentials, it’s simply to acknowledge on a basic human level that they are making a contribution we are perhaps taking for granted.

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Which is why I find it so astonishing that they are high on the list of those for whom our governments have been unable to come up with a suitable protection from the economic impact of Covid-19.

That is not to underestimate the contribution of other frontline workers. Quite the opposite.

How would we be able to staff our hospitals, our care homes, get food to those who need it, keep our supermarkets open if we did not have the mammoth contribution that the North Sea industry still makes to our energy resources.

But there is also a huge support industry which, like everywhere, is feeling the cold wind of the economic downturn we all know is coming and is already costing jobs and contracts.

And what many of us may not be aware of is that an increasing number of those involved in what is still a dangerous industry are contractors or self-employed.

Many of them, like the freelance workforce across so much of our creative industries and other sectors, have written to elected representatives like myself to say they feel completely forgotten by the Chancellor’s package of support and by the Scottish Government.

Our increasingly important, and growing, television and film industry is also among those suffering from the blind spot that government support measures seem to have for the self-employed.

Many of them are finding there is no support, no recognition of their work status, no security in this crisis.

But I am sure they and those in other sectors will forgive me for using the example of our energy industry to point out the unacceptability of this shortcoming.

Let’s just think for a moment about what we ask some of these people to do for us every day.

If there’s a person out there who hasn’t felt anxiety in these times I have yet to meet them.

But imagine what that must be like when you place it on an oil installation or a supply boat in the North Sea.

We know it is a working environment that is made as safe as it can be but it is only as safe as it can be, it is still an environment which has created some of the worst workplace tragedies this country has seen in the past 50 years.

For families left at home, it is a scary enough time without the threat of coronavirus creeping on to the platform or going through the crisis knowing you will be without your loved one for half of the year.

And as plummeting oil prices undermine job security across the sector even further, there is no financial safety net if you are one of the self-employed.

The issue is simple.

It was HMRC which encouraged freelancers in all industries to pay tax through the PAYE system.

Now, in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, that is making it difficult to prove they are self-employed, even with self-assessment and the fact that HMRC has their records over many years.

Other countries have decided that their freelancers can be supported by using the average of their earnings over the last three years for the months of March, April and May just like those who work for one employer.

Surely our own freelances deserve nothing less?

At the moment not many of us will drive past the refinery at Grangemouth, see the supply boats on their repetitive trips between Aberdeen harbour and the rigs, or spot the flare from the Beatrice platform in the night sky as we drive up to the very north of the country.

But when you next switch on the oven, or the TV or drive past the petrol station to the supermarket, think about all the people that make those things possible and what Covid-19 might mean for them.

And if you get the chance to remind your elected representatives – like me – to stand up for them. Please take it.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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