Bolivia: Contract Workers from the Gualberto Villarroel Refinery demand their rights

Direct and radical action announced in case their demands are not fulfilled

Translated by Johannes Ullrich, CWI-Germany

When Evo Morales announced the nationalisation of the hydrocarbon industry in 2006, the contract workers of the Gualberto Villarroel refinery in Cochabamba, Bolivia, thought their terrible working conditions would change.

These contract workers are extremely exploited. They are contracted for only two years, their jobsites are unsafe, and they often work overtime while still only receiving a pitiful salary of 700 Bolivianos per month ($87.50 USD).

In contrast to this, the official Petrobras workers have permanent contracts, earn salaries starting at 14 000 Bolivianos per month ($1750 USD) and are organized into a union. The executives and managers, working in 9 to 5-office hours jobs, earn gigantic incomes ranging from 66 000 ($8250 USD) up to 210 000 Bolivianos per month ($26 250 USD).

In other words, the contract workers are "Tercializados". This practice, which is illegal in Bolivia, means that capitalists who run a company, in addition to hiring permanent workers, also hire workers with temporary contracts. These workers do the hardest jobs, have the longest workdays, have the most dangerous work conditions, lack social security, and get a much lower salary to top it all off.

Repression follows nationalisation

While these contract workers thought things would change after the nationalization, months later, nothing had changed. Instead injustice and exploitation persisted.

For this reason, this group of workers began organizing themselves, building their own union, the Mixed Union of Petrol Workers "Gualberto Villarroel", to make their demands heard. They went to the COD (federation of unions of the province) for recognition and received it. But they did not get recognition from the union which is accepted by the Petrobras oil company. On the contrary, their intention to join that union was utterly rejected.

This pitiable decision gave Petrobras the opportunity to repress the contract workers. In the months following the creation of their union, 6 leaders and 12 workers of the Mixed Union of the Gualberto Villarroel refinery were fired and banned from the premises, just because they had built a union representing their group of workers.

But the sacked workers didn’t give up. On the contrary, they took a militant attitude, meeting weekly and scheduling activities. They went to the COD leaders, asking them to intervene in this case as representatives of the workers. But they only got moral support; the COD did not propose any concrete actions to backup the demands of the contract workers.

After this, they sent a total of 15 letters to the MAS government, the president and the vice president of the republic, and the hydrocarbon industry secretary, etc. asking that their case be heard. When they finally got an audience with an official of the hydrocarbon industry ministry, they were given no support despite the fact that he had conceded in a letter to them that Petrobras was violating the Bolivian law by keeping up the system of "Tercialisation".

Contract workers ready for action

The workers became more and more fed up with ineffective, "formal" ways of changing their situation. They were furious for not having been listened to by the MAS government and the unions, and felt the economic pinch as the days passed and they remained unemployed. As a result, the Gualberto Villarroel workers began considering the possibility taking more direct, radical measures such as hunger strikes, demonstrations, and even an occupation of the refinery.

These plans for direct action were interrupted on March 11, when Evo Morales announced that Bolivia had made an agreement with Petrobras to buy the Gualberto Villaroel refinery, together with the Guillermo Elder Bell refinery in Santa Cruz, for $112 million USD. On this day, the Gualberto Villaroel refinery passed into the hands of the state-owned Bolivian company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB).

In order not to punish the government for the crimes of Petrobras, the contract workers decided to postpone their planned actions to give the authorities the chance to comply with their just demands. The demands are:

  • Respect the labor law, the national laws and the 2nd article of the D.S. 28699
  • Immediate reemployment of the sacked leaders and workers on their workplaces
  • Respect the Union’s Forum
  • Open-ended working contracts for the contract workers
  • No Tercialisation of the works in the Gualberto Villaroel refinery
  • Replace the legal and fiscal advisors of Petrobras who draw up work contracts
  • Immediate complete nationalisation of 100% of the two refineries into the hands of Bolivian YPFB, and installation of a people’s and workers control and administration
  • Investigation into the extraction and sale of state property in the Gualberto Villaroel refinery

The government has fulfilled the demands concerning the nationalisation of the running of the refinery and has handed over control to YFPB. Now it has the opportunity and responsibility to fulfill the rest of their demands. If the government does not do so, the contract workers are determined to win them through struggle and direct action, including the possibility of taking their refinery by force.

Fight for worker’s and people’s control

Alternativa Socialista Revolucionaria (CWI-Bolivia) fully supports the struggle of the contract workers of the Gualberto Villaroel refinery. We support the demand for the reemployment of all the sacked workers and insist that they should also receive back-pay to compensate for the salary they lost because of their illegal dismissals. We also back the demand for a salary increase and the complete nationalisation of the refineries under the democratic control of the Bolivian people.

If the government does not fulfill the demands of the workers, and direct action is necessary, Alternativa Socialista Revolucionaria (ASR), has committed itself to help organise and mobilise the workers and the community for the struggle, including the possibility of making an international solidarity appeal to solicit help from the other 35 sections of the CWI that are present on every continent of the world.

In the struggle to support the the Gualberto Villaroel contract workers, ASR will also work to convince people of the necessity of fighting for truly democratic control over the two nationalised refineries by the Bolivian people and the refinery’s workers. For this purpose we propose that the refineries be controlled by an elected committee consisting of 1/3 of government representatives, 1/3 of the Bolivian people and 1/3 of the workers.

Only genuine democratic control by the Bolivian people and workers can assure that the oil products and income generated by the refineries are used to serve the best interests of the majority of the Bolivian people (rather than just a small clique of bureaucrats). It would also guarantee that the workers of the refineries have a voice in the process of production and stable jobs, secure working conditions, and the right to organize into a union.

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