Colombia oilfield union activist killed, fingers get pointed

Llanos of Colombia's Meta Department seen from Termotecnica worker housing occupied by strikers, August 2012.

Llanos of Colombia’s Meta Department seen from Termotecnica worker housing occupied by strikers, August 2012.

Milton Enrique Vivas, 42 was killed 11 December. He was a union activist who had taken part in fights for better conditions at different companies.

The Union Sindical Obrera (USO) oil union, in its statement on the web, suggests that paramilitaries may have been to blame, and makes a point of mentioning that Vivas was part of the union struggle against Pacific Rubiales Energy Corp., without implicating the company in the crime. The police said they are investigating the USO, because Vivas supposedly accused union reps of threatening.

To understand this story, you need to start out by understanding what is happening right now in the oilfields south of Puerto Gaitan, Colombia. Under the beautiful rolling plains, workers have been demanding better conditions from various companies. The fight really got going in 2011 with a mass movement by contract workers at the Rubiales field, operated by PRE.

These fights have been dizzyingly complicated because the oil companies use layer upon layer of subcontractors, each of which negotiates its own labor conditions. So the workers weren’t directly employed by PRE, but rather with a company called JM Montajes, which had been hired to build tanks, scaffolding, electrical connections and other such infrastructure within the Rubiales field. And their complaints weren’t all about JM Montajes either — another company provided the (at the time, inadequate) cafeterias, bathrooms, and showers. Everything is outsourced, which is why PRE was accurate if not entirely forthcoming when it put out this statement, for example:

Toronto, Canada, Thursday, September 22, 2011 – Pacific Rubiales Energy Corp. (TSX: PRE; BVC: PREC) announced today that the blockade of certain internal routes at the Rubiales and Quifa Fields has now been resolved. The Company has commenced the process of restarting operations at the fields and expects to have production back to normal levels within a week. There has been no material damage as a result of the blockade.

The blockade was initiated as part of protests and political activity taking place outside of Pacific Rubiales’ operations, by persons who are not employees of the Company. Pacific Rubiales maintained the safety of its staff and contractors throughout this blockade, and is thankful that it has been resolved peacefully.

As the fight wore on, PRE was able to purge labor activists by switching to new contractors. When I visited the area in August of this year, I met several workers who said they had been hired by the new contractors but then denied entry to the Rubiales field — including one worker who said he was forced to get off the employee bus at the oilfield entrance and wait for a ride back to town. The union insists there is a blacklist against their organizers, who now must wait years before working at Rubiales again. The company sent me this comment recently when I was writing about these issues for Economist Intelligence Unit:

There is not a blacklist against union organizers. All union organizers are welcome to visit the field, the only requirement is that they conduct their visit in peace, in a constructive manner and without using any violent method to enter into the field and to encourage workers to join their union.

The union also showed me and my colleague a stack of signed declarations from ex-USO members who said they were forced to renounce their union membership in order to regain work at Rubiales. The company says:

Pacific has never asked any worker to renounce their membership to any labor union in order to work in any field. All the workers at Rubiales field are hired provided that they comply with the requirements established within the policies agreed with the community and the local governments, regardless of their membership to any labor union. Furthermore, Pacific Rubiales does not take the recruiting decisions by itself; there is a committee in charge of guaranteeing the transparency of the recruiting process. That committee is designated by the community.

Worker assembly, Termotécnica strike camp

Worker assembly, Termotécnica strike camp

In any event, PRE ended up accepting pretty much all the union demands, and then signed a contract with a union that had never had anything to do with the oil industry. That got the USO out of their hair, and those workers able to keep working in the field were happy — hours, wages and conditions at Rubiales field are now the envy of the region.

Indeed, improvements gave the USO a new goal: They now want the other companies in the area to match PRE’s wages and conditions. This year, workers at Termotecnica went on strike over pay and benefits, among other demands. The USO showed up and offered to represent the workers, and the offer was accepted. The workers took over the new dorm buildings and created a “permanent assembly” of workers. A colleague and I spent a night at the Termotecnica strike camp in August, where I was able to chat with a lot of the workers. That’s how I got the photos interspersed in this post.

Now, we get up to date with this killing. Here is part of the USO website statement (my translation):

USO unionist who struggled against Pacific Rubiales killed

rivasuso111212It’s possible that some paramilitary groups are trying in some way to get the attention of the national government…

…Milton Rivas was an operator and electrician with the company Termotécnica. He was notable for his leadership and support for the worker struggles in the region. He made up part of the group of workers that stopped work in order to achieve decent working conditions for thousands of workers who labor for the multinational Pacific Rubiales.

Yesterday (Monday), Milton Rivas was approached near the Termotecnica jobsite by two armed people, who told him to quit his union activities or be killed. Unfortunately, today they fulfilled their threats…

The union’s full press release says that before the blood was dry, the police were hinting that the union may have been to blame:

Mere hours after the vile killing of our fellow worker, the commander of the Meta Police Department, Coronel Jaime Romero, was in the mass media, specifically in, saying: “Milton was part of Termotécnica, he joined the USO, and then dropped his membership over differences. On 25 August he denounced four members of the USO for threats, which are being investigated.” The affirmations once more tried to not only stigmatize our union’s work but also seek to divert the investigation so that this act will remain in impunity.

Now, I have no idea who was responsible for this killing. But you can’t ignore the context here. Colombia has more unionists killed per year than anywhere else on earth:

According to the figures on violence against trade unionists, 2,914 trade unionists were killed in Colombia between 1 January 1986 and 31 December 2011; 2,643 were men and 274 were women, and 26,4% of those murdered, that is 772, were trade union leaders.

And as Otto adds, the same group of businessmen who control PRE also control other companies where activists have been killed. They have never been charged in connection with any of these murders, and Serafino Iacono’s lawyer was so annoyed at Otto’s even quoting a union who blamed them for a murder that said lawyer sought to sue Otto, via e-mail, about a year ago.

I wrote eight people at Pacific Rubiales late yesterday asking for any comment on Vivas’ murder, but haven’t yet gotten a response. I’ll publish anything I receive.

So what is there to say? I have no idea. A man is dead. Here, have a pretty photograph of a morichal. Photo was taken from a dirt road with a small oil pipeline along one side.


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