The Revolution Annihilated Oil Workers

Layoffs due to political persecution, mass resignation and retirement, terrible working conditions. The human dimension of this industry helps us understand why oil production has plummeted.

Photo: Reuters retrieved

Having just graduated as a mechanical engineer from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Rafael Delgado received a job offer from PDVSA. He’d have to move from Caracas to Lagunillas, Zulia, the hottest region in the country, without the benefits of living with his family in the nation’s capital. But those were the ’80s and working in the oil industry was a golden dream.

He got married and left. His salary was over US$1,500 at the exchange rate of the time, and it included health insurance, the possibility of living in a company house without needing a down payment or loan at the bank, access to grocery stores where food was subsidized, transportation services and schools for their future children… the deal was perfect.

Just a few years after working in the Ciudad Ojeda oil wells, he bought a brand new car and took a family vacation to Disney. He also kept studying and getting promoted in a company whose production goals were above 3 million barrels a day.

Gone with Chávez

Iván Freites, secretary general for the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros y Gasífera del Estado Falcón, and secretary for professionals and technicians from the Federación Unitaria de Trabajadores Petroleros de Venezuela (FUTPV) recalls how, before the arrival of Hugo Chávez, a worker earned $720 as a base salary. A technician like Freites made $1,200, while a professional engineer earned between $2,000 and $5,000 per month.

It all went up in smoke.

Rafael Delgado no longer has a car, since he couldn’t afford its maintenance, and his salary doesn’t even allow a trip to Caracas to visit his family. In August 2018, he lost even more because of “working class president” Nicolás Maduro’s economic measures, who compressed the salary scale in public office to a maximum of 18,000 bolivars per month. Now he makes the same money as a low level worker. Not even $2 a month.

All the money that PDVSA employees and its affiliates would earn as a result of collective bargainings, making them privileged in Latin America, is now worthless.

All the money that PDVSA employees and its affiliates would earn as a result of collective bargainings, making them privileged in Latin America, is now worthless. The workers’ achievements in healthcare, housing, education, job safety, meritocracy, retirement, social security, utilities, recreation and even the right to form unions were annihilated by the revolution.

“In the last ten years, our main industry became a den of thieves, smugglers and looters. As of right now, oil production has decreased to unimaginable lows and we became the most accident-prone oil company in the world,” says Freites.

PDVSA registers a constant decline in production rates since 2012. There are many versions as to the real amount of oil that is exported, in the context of the U.S. sanctions. “What’s being taken out in the Orinoco belt and the west added up to 400,000 barrels a day last August,” Freites says, “about three barrels per worker, when in its heyday it would produce around 80 barrels per worker daily, and had a payroll of 42,000 people. During Chávez’s and Maduro’s governments that payroll quadrupled, even though all refineries have ceased operations. There’s no fuel being made, or a gas canister, or a liter of gasoil.”

Add to that the decrease of production since Amuay caught fire, last September, at the refinery complex in Paraguaná, which has the capacity for 950,000 barrels daily, and was already at a third of its capacity. All because of poor maintenance. The prevention and fire control systems failed, and according to the workers, the fire could have easily been controlled in 20 minutes, but since there was no running water in Falcón, it went on for seven hours.

PDVSA went from having 43,000 workers to 143,000 in 2016, of which, Freites claims, 45,000 aren’t in the oil business. Most of them have ran from the company, retired or quit.

What Do PDVSA Workers Have Now?

There’s no running water on PDVSA premises, or safety equipment—that would arrive every three months—not all the cafeterias are open, and those that are only serve rice and sardines. That’s why, in some departments, the hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., so workers can go home for lunch. They’re forcing some employees to show up for work even if it’s out of their scheduled hours, which hadn’t happened since the 1930s when a strike for fresh drinking water and equal pay for foreign and local workers took place. “The oil industry went back 85 years in time. Working conditions have been abolished by presidential decree. Now everybody is retiring or quitting because conditions aren’t suitable.”

PDVSA went from having 43,000 workers to 143,000 in 2016, of which, Freites claims, 45,000 aren’t in the oil business.

Employees have lost medical insurance, and the insurance offered by PDVSA isn’t recognized at private clinics, after many overdue payments from the state.  Some schools in the oil fields haven’t started activities because teachers quit. It’s presumed that those jobs will be taken over by younger people from the Misión Chamba Juvenil, an idea thought up by Maduro to include the population between 18 and 35 years of age into the job market.

The lack of public transportation is a recurring issue, as well as poor safety in the wells, where workers are often victims of burglary and theft. “Some law enforcement officers are involved in the thefts, on the looting; they take apart machinery piece by piece.” The working man is unhappy yet intimidated, harassed and fired. Since Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, was sworn in as the caretaker president, 300 workers have been let go for political reasons, complaining about the low wages and the deplorable conditions of the oil company, according to Freites.

Even the amount of accidents are unknown. Maduro’s government is openly ignoring the Constitution and the labor laws, as well as social and economic rights of workers, not to mention the harm done to the country’s interests. However, Iván Freites still has hope: there are still around 10,000 workers committed to rescuing the oil company. Having the refineries shut down, the loss of man-hours in terms of training and production and the cheapest workforce in the region being completely unmotivated, makes putting the numbers in the green again “an impossible task while Maduro retains power.”

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.