Wednesday, Sept. 19, the College of William and Mary anthropology department’s brown bag lunch brought the conversation about workers’ rights in the United Arab Emirates to a classroom in Washington Hall.
There, anthropology and Asian and Middle Eastern studies professor Andrea Wright showcased her presentation, “Building an Oil Rig: An Ethnography of Contracts and Risks,” to a group of approximately 20 students and faculty members.
This summer, Wright conducted ethnographic research at an oil rig construction site in Abu Dhabi, UAE. At the site, she partook in participant observation, focusing on hiring practices and the risks presented to workers at the site of the oil rig. Wright’s concentration in her research was to understand how labor practices influenced production, emphasizing how large infrastructure is handled and the consequences of this practice for workers.
“I’m going to look at three things,” Wright said. “I’m going to look at how large the construction projects are that the oil industry can manage. While doing this, I’m going to highlight the practice of contracting and how safety is used as a technique to manage workers and mitigate them, and I’m going to look at the consequences of these practices.”
Wright began by explaining the nature of oil rigs, describing them as resource-intensive, and then elaborated on the oil rig she observed, delving into the safety regulations at the rigs. The semi-submerged rig was controlled by Conex Petroleum Services.
One day when Wright was observing a rig, she witnessed an incident in which a worker was harnessed improperly, fell and died. Wright said she saw this as representative of the tension she felt among workers about accidents and safety. Throughout Wright’s presentation, she asserted that although safety practices are instituted to prevent injuries, they can actually put workers in a more precarious position.
“Despite this emphasis on safety, accidents still happen,” Wright said.
Wright explained that oftentimes, contractors supply more hours of labor than the larger, controlling oil companies, and that trend is only increasing. These contractors regularly hire men for daily work. The daily workers lack benefits and receive lower overall pay and no overtime reimbursement. These workers tend to not be on payroll and do not receive the same benefits that other workers do. According to Wright, many workers also hail from India due to economic precariousness in their home communities.
While the emphasis on safety has some benefits, Wright asserted, the system often places blame on workers for accidents. Most contractors take pride in having a low number of injuries per millions of hours, and the importance of hours without injury is significant for contractors to obtain business. This process encourages placing blame on workers and, by allowing large companies to avoid responsibility for workers yet still control how the work is executed and who is executing that work, the companies themselves avoid blame for injury and death.
“In these cases, blame has been assigned, and most often blame is assigned to the worker, although in some cases the manager is responsible,” Wright said.
This process does not lead to the reduction of accidents; it simply obscures them from the public eye, Wright argued, and it produces a trend of fewer rights, greater regulation and more risks for workers.
Workers often unite to address these risks, coping with them through mechanisms such as religion, organizing and forming communities.
“Workers and their families are not passive objects, but rather workers influence corporate practices and government practices,” Wright said.
Wright explained that many oil rig workers practice Islam and often unite through this religious community. Beyond religion, workers also form organizations which raise awareness of the death of workers. These communities of workers also strive to raise funds to get the workers’ remains back to their families, especially for those who emigrated from India to the UAE.
Their advocacy work also aims to reach a wider audience. In the public eye, they are putting pressure on companies to take responsibility for working conditions, and on the Indian government to prevent workers from going to the UAE to find well-paying work. From these organizations, tight-knit communities arise out of the process of attempting to humanize these workers and the problems they face.
Wright’s words resonated with the members of the College community present at the talk. Hayden Bassett, PhD ’17, for instance, said that he was particularly interested in the topic of labor organizing.
“The thing I found most interesting was … the labor groups themselves and the degrees to which labor groups form their own internal hierarchies on a project-by-project basis based on ethnicity, language, that type of thing,” Bassett said. “And the degrees to which those subgroups might distribute risks in themselves.”
Academic interest also brought first year graduate student Skye Gailing to the talk.
“I’m interested in labor laws and workers’ rights, so seeing the intersections of that mixed with culture and international politics, seeing that in Dr. Wright’s talk was interesting,” Gailing said. “Her work was practical and had applications. She has real world impacts.”