THE slide in global crude oil prices has left a trail of casualties in its wake.
Oil companies and governments that rely on the price of crude oil for profit and revenue have been hurt by plunging receipts from lower crude oil prices.
For countries dependent on commodities such as crude oil, the effect cuts deeper. Their currencies have felt the brunt from the weaker crude oil prices and it is this group of countries that have a reliance on commodities that have seen the biggest depreciation against the US dollar compared with oil importing countries.
While the macro picture hogs the headlines and generates most of the chatter, the real micro cost of plunging crude oil prices has been felt by employment in the sector.
Many oil majors have announced job cuts to manage costs that had spiralled upwards during the boom days in the industry. Oil majors now have resorted to slashing their workforce amid the biggest downturn in the industry for decades.
For Malaysia, that impact is telling. Between January and July, the Malaysian labour market has laid off 6,547 people (not inclusive the voluntary separation schemes for Malaysia Airlines and banks). But 30% of that number, or nearly 2,000 people who lost their jobs, have come from the oil and gas industry alone.
“It is getting worse,” an oil industry executive says on the job cuts plaguing the industry. He says the oil major he works for is in the midst of a rightsizing exercise and that will mean many jobs will need to be slashed in the coming months.
“We have to reach a new equilibrium for the economies in the oil and gas sector.”
And it does not seem like the industry has hit a trough when it comes to retrenchment.
Part of that is down to the outlook for the price of crude oil. Although there is optimism that prices have hit a bottom, there is another school of thought that predicts more pain for the sector.
Supply from shale oil and future Iranian oil, once trade sanctions are lifted, are clouding the supply dynamics for crude oil and gas.
With expectation that oil prices will remain weak for the foreseeable future, oil majors continue to announce job layoffs. More jobs are expected to be cut next year.
In the US alone, oil companies are reported to have laid off more than 86,000 personnel from June last year up to September of this year. With many global giants having a presence in Malaysia, the workforce in the country will likely be included as part of a global cut in workforce.
The main culprit for job cuts among oil and gas has been the financial performance of those companies. As profits plunge, the knee-jerk reaction is to cut costs, and employment is in the crosshair of such cuts.
The hit on leaner employment prospects has already been told through not only the fall in crude oil prices but also cuts in capital expenditure and operating expenditure by Petronas Nasional Bhd. Companies that service the upstream segment of the industry have been the worst hit.
Petronas, the driver of the local oil and gas industry, has cut its operating costs and that has meant lesser demand for services provided by the oil and gas industry.
An industry official says Petronas, for its part, is not retrenching employees at the moment despite pressure to maintain profitability. It will cut bonuses in order to keep its permanent staff.
“There is no rightsizing of permanent staff at Petronas but whether it renews the contracts of high-paying employees is another thing,” he says.
The hardest hit segment on the industry’s value chain has been upstream activity. The cut in the number of exploration rigs and the associated services indicates the predicament the industry is going through.
The collapse in the price of crude oil has meant that companies are less inclined to spend on searching for new sources of crude oil. It makes matters worse when it is already costly to search for such oil in areas such as deepwater oil fields.
“As revenue comes down, staff are being redeployed from upstream to downstream. Staff will also be asked to multi-task but whether they can do that is another thing,” he says.
A pickup in hiring activity in the upstream segment is not expected as long as crude oil prices are anaemic.
Job cuts have taken place in that segment as a result of dimmed prospects in the industry.
With prices not expected to bounce up significantly, job prospects will remain dim. The general consensus is that crude oil prices are expected to remain sluggish for the short- to medium-term and that has necessitated the cut in expenditure and staff costs.
Trickle down effects
The oil and gas sector is not the only segment that has laid off workers as the pace of retrenchments seemed to have picked up pace.
Maybank Investment Bank says in a report that retrenchments rose sharply in the second quarter, up 56.7% year-on-year to 3,213 in the second quarter compared with a 14.4% increase to 2,789 in the first quarter of this year.
“Retrenchments in the construction sector went up as a number of major projects are nearing completion amid slow replenishment rate. The oil and gas sector’s retrenchment has been on the uptrend since the second half of 2014, coinciding with the plunge in crude oil price.
“At the same time, services industries like ‘finance, insurance, real & business services’ and ‘transport, storage & communications’ also showed uptrends,” it says.
Between January and July of this year, statistics indicate that 47% of retrenched workers are skilled, 40% semi-skilled and 13% unskilled.
It is the loss of skilled jobs, such as that by the oil and gas sector, that will have a big knock-on effect on the rest of the economy. The higher than average salaries that those workers once commanded will evaporate from the system and the absence of which will trickle down to the different sectors of the economy.
The slump in the industry has already been felt in the areas surrounding KL City Centre (KLCC), which is said to be the operational hub for oil and gas companies in Malaysia.
Hotel occupancy is down in Kuala Lumpur, especially those around KLCC. The Kuala Lumpur Shangri-la, which is the benchmark for hoteliers in the country, has announced a 10% drop in revenue in the second quarter of this year.
Apart from hotels, rental demand for houses surrounding the KLCC area has been acutely felt with the loss of jobs in the oil and gas industry.
“There has been a knee-jerk reaction especially around the KLCC area,” says a property consultant.
He says tenancies have been cancelled with oil and gas workers retrenched and for those who still have their jobs, their employers are housing them in different areas in the city.
“The numbers are down but it is not significant. There has, however, been a downgrade in the choice of accommodation,” he says.
The outlook though is not going to be rosy. With gross domestic product clocking a growth rate of 4.9% in the second quarter compared with growth of 5.6% in the first quarter, the slower growth rate will eventually bite into the prospects of employment.
“The labour market lags economic activity. There will be a lag of one or two quarters as companies won’t immediately lay off workers,” says an official.