What can you do as a large oil and gas company plagued by labour unrest? You can either settle with the workers’ representatives or factor industrial disruption into your business plan. But Pacific Rubiales, Colombia’s largest private oil company developing the country’s first LNG export terminal, has come up with a third way: invite another labour syndicate that does not advocate direct action to sign up members from the existing union.
Toronto-listed Pacific had turned the Rubiales field into Colombia’s largest source of oil since taking operatorship in 2004. The development, however, took a steady toll on working conditions as thousands of labourers from across the country flocked to the marshy plains of the eastern Meta region to seek their luck in the oil boom.
Pacific employs about 500 workers at Rubiales and subcontracts the remaining 21,500, usually at lower wages and benefits. The rupture came in July 2011, when Colombia’s official oil syndicate Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) launched a series of protests at the field, demanding better food, shelter, salaries and transport. The protests quickly turned violent, causing temporary production shutdowns.
By August 2011 Pacific was ready to negotiate, but not with USO. Wildcat understands the union’s dogmatic socialism is an anathema to the company’s Venezuelan founders Ronald Pantin and José Francisco Arata who, along with a dozen other Pacific executives, came to Colombia to escape the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of neighbouring President Hugo Chávez.
Instead, Pacific employees invited Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Energética Nacional (UTEN), a business-friendly electricity union with four years of history and no prior oil experience. UTEN subscribed more than 1,000 Pacific workers in October 2011 and at the end of July this year claimed 5,050 affiliates in the company and its contractors. UTEN’s mission is to “propose and not protest”, according to its founder Alex Ortiz.
Meanwhile, USO disappeared from Rubiales. “UTEN appeared out of thin air on the company’s invitation and immediately reached an agreement with Pacific, taking our proposals and presenting them as their achievements,” said USO President Rodolfo Vecino. “We were outmanoeuvred,” he told Wildcat, sitting underneath a psychedelic painting of Che Guevara in his Bogotá office. USO claims around 5,000 of its members at Rubiales were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed following last year’s protests.
Wildcat has copies of 21 USO membership renouncement letters from workers claiming coercion. “My disaffiliation is not voluntary and is caused by pressure and threats exerted by Pacific Rubiales on [subcontracting] company ICC, which is at risk of not being rehired to work at the Rubiales field,” worker Oscar Javier Niño wrote to USO on 7 February 2012 in a letter verified by Wildcat. USO claims to have 200 such letters.
Engineering firm Montajes JM, which accounted for about a quarter of USO affiliates at the field, has had its contract cancelled. Pacific has hired another firm to take its place.
Wildcat met four former Rubiales labourers who claim to have been denied access to the field because of USO affiliation. “The majority of us had to renounce from the union to keep access to the field,” former USO member John Vargas said. Vargas continues to work as a builder at Rubiales for subcontractor Eléctricas de Medellín.
Pacific did not respond to queries about alleged workers’ intimidation, which would violate Colombian law on the right to free association. The enforcement of this right has come under greater scrutiny since the Free Trade Agreement with the United States went into effect in May.
Alejandro Ospina, president of UTEN Hidrocarburos, could not confirm or deny the black list. “I honestly don’t know if such a list exists,” he said in an interview on 27 August. According to him, some workers were denied entrance because of previous criminal convictions. Some temporary workers were not rehired because their projects had finished.
“UTEN and USO are similar in their objectives: at least in theory, both pursue the wellbeing of workers and respect for their rights. We differ in our ways of achieving this,” Ospina said. UTEN stresses peaceful conflict resolution, while USO is set on eternal confrontation with foreign companies, he explained. USO’s mission statement is: “We fight for the nationalisation without compensation of our oil.”
Ospina combines his UTEN position with a staff job at Pacific Rubiales. The union’s officials travel to fields on company planes and all of UTEN Hidrocarburos promotional material has a Pacific logo. UTEN only has affiliates at fields operated by Pacific.
Yet UTEN denies it is a ‘paternal’ or company union. “The satisfaction of our workers shows our commitment to their interests,” said Julio Diaz, UTEN spokesman in Meta. A major complaint of workers and local residents against Pacific is the company’s failure to pave the 170 km road from Rubiales to the nearest town of Puerto Gaitán because of high costs. UTEN has not pressured Pacific to pave the road on behalf of the workers.
In any event, the new union’s “propose, not protest” motto is certainly catching up with employers. UTEN is negotiating representation contracts with oil and gas producers Hocol, Petrominerales and CEPSA. The latter’s operations are crippled by a USO strike.
Conditions at Rubiales have reportedly improved since the protests: the wages are above Meta’s oil industry average, the meals are well-cooked and housing more comfortable. But the road to the field remains unpaved and UTEN has admitted that some workers still live in tents. During Meta’s wet season this means sleeping in mud and spending 10 to 12 hours on travel to Puerto Gaitán on rest days.
Pacific declined Wildcat’s requests to visit the field. AK