Sick and disabled petroleum workers organize to struggle for their rights

In Huila

[Translation by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translators]

A singular demonstration of workers on crutches, with orthopedic apparatuses or simply sick and disabled recently went through the streets of Neiva.

The demonstrators are members of Asotradeimene: The Association of Workers Disabled and Sickened by the Mining/Energy Industry, Huila Section. Accompanied by their families and friends in solidarity, the marched to claim their rights, which were violated by the companies that contract with Ecopetrol [the state-dominated large petroleum company, one of the world’s largest—SC] in this region of the country. Those companies, together with corrupt lawyers and functionaries, have arbitrarily fired tens of workers with occupational diseases or disabilities because of accidents at work, according to the accusation by John Carlos Ninco Bonilla, leader of this association and member of the USO [petroleum workers’ union—SC].

“We workers in the petroleum industry are mobilizing because of the systematic violation of our rights; we reject the miserable qualifications that the national disability qualifying board gives us, we denounce the corrupt functionaries of the Ministry of Labor in the Huila Branch, who have authorized many firings of sick or disabled workers; as well also reject the decisions of the labor judges of Huila,” explained Ninco Bonilla.

He explained that the association was formalized a year ago to respond to the difficult situation that the sick and disabled workers are suffering through in various sectors in the southern part of the country. This is especially true in the petroleum industry, which 69 of the 256 people affiliated in Huila alone belong to. At the national level, it now has affiliates in Putumayo, Caquetá, Tolima, Meta and Arauca, where the petroleum workers suffer the same indignities. In total, it has 450 affiliates.

Firings everywhere

According to Ninco Bonilla, in Huila it is now the norm that the contractor and subcontractor firms of Ecopetrol fire workers with diseases they get at work, or with disabilities that are the product of accidents at work. “They do it without an assessment of the origin of the condition, without rehabilitation processes or recognizing their economic and assistance benefits. Further, they are leaving us abandoned in misery because the qualification board denies us our pensions as invalid, including in cases of amputations, like in my case, or of diseases that produce total disabilities,” he added.

He denounced repeated failings in the industrial safety systems of the petroleum companies, with the aggravating factor that this is a heavy and risky occupation, in which occupational diseases and accidents are common. It is an industry in which an army of disabled—who are not receiving any attention from the companies or protection from the Ministry of Labor, which has authorized the firing of many sick and disabled people—swells day by day. The functionaries of the Ministry of Labor in the area—he pointed out— limit themselves to publishing resolutions, but they do not activate safety, inspection or vigilance mechanisms to demand that the companies report accidents or occupational diseases to the ARL [Work Risks Administration—SC].

“They are passive observers, when they are not in fact covering up the arbitrary, and even illegal, behavior of the companies. The ARLs and the qualification boards in almost all the cases give treatment for common diseases, even when the person has had an amputation or is confined to a wheelchair. They only grant invalid pensions in those cases where they know they may have problems,” he asserted, and he did not hesitate to call the troika that the contractor firms have put together, the lawyers who work for them, the ARLs and some functionaries and ex-functionaries of the Ministry of Labor a “criminal enterprise.” He even questions the decisions of the labor judges, almost always in favor of the companies.

He also denounced discrimination and persecution of the fired workers who by some legal route won their rehiring. They are not relocated, they are not trained to carry out other work. They prefer to have them sitting, doing nothing in a cafeteria. And aside from this, there have been threats against the leaders of Asotradeimene who have dared to denounce these anomalies.

His personal case is revelatory in this respect. He was in an accident in 2008 and lost one of his legs, which had to be amputated. But the Petroworks company, which he was working for, blamed him for the accident. The Ministry authorized his firing, but he instituted proceedings, and they have not been able to fire him. He has been struggling for 7 years to get the company to recognize his rights. He says that they have offered him money to come to an agreement and desist from his leadership of Asotradeimene. They have also threatened him, but he remains firm and hopeful that in the end justice will show that he is right.

Ninco Bonilla, the father of 5 children, is demanding his invalid’s pension. “I don’t want to add myself to that column of sick and disabled workers who are thrown out there, suffering hunger; just as I don’t want that to happen to other workers,” he said.

On the executive board of Asotradeimene, there are also Julio César Cárdenas, fired by the contractor Varisur, whose knee was operated on, and he cannot walk well; and Diego Manchola, fired with an occupational disease.

The revolving door

Asotradeimene denounced what could be called the “revolving door,” through which pass functionaries of the regional office of the Ministry of Labor who have authorized the companies to fire sick and disabled workers and later join the forms of the lawyers who litigate in favor of those companies, or go on to work directly for them.

This is the case with Claudia Pastora Correal Restrepo, who, according to Asotradeimene, when she was a functionary of the regional office of the Ministry of Labor authorized 25 firings of workers. She retired from that structure and joined the legal firm of Belisario Velásquez, which advises Varisur, Petroworks, and Quimonsa, three contractors of Ecopetrol; and later she went on directly to work with Ecopetrol.

He also mentioned the case of Víctor Hugo Plazas Zambrano, who replaced the lawyer Correal Restrepo in the regional office, and who after authorizing firings without due process or evidence, now also works for the contractors of Ecopetrol. And the case of Tatiana Andrea Forero, Coordinator in the regional office, who had also authorized firings of sick and disabled workers, and is still in her post.

In a letter that Asotradeimene sent to the Ministry of Labor denouncing all these irregularities, they say that the ranking of the companies that have had the most firings and that most violate the rights of the sick and disabled workers is led by Petroworks, with 13 sick, mostly of the spinal column; Halliburton (8 cases), Varisur (5); Beiker (5), Quimonsa (2 dead and 1 sick), Mecánicos Asociados (4), Unión Temporal Unión Llanitos (3), Metalpark (2), Independe (1), Petrocol (1), Petroservis (1), Sismopetrol (1). They are workers signed up with ARLs such as Positiva, Suramericana, Colpatria, Colmena, among others.

Among the petitions of Asotradeimene to the Ministry of Labor are: that outsourcing work, the source of many of the problems, be ended; that the fired sick people be hired back to their jobs or relocated; that pensions for invalids be recognized for those that deserve them, as well as indemnizations where appropriate; that treatment and rehabilitation services be offered; that they not be persecuted and threatened for defending their rights; that the Ministry fine the companies that commit the irregularities.

Up to now, the Ministry’s central authority has not responded to the denunciations by Asotradeimene. In the case of Petroworks there was a preferential investigation and the case was moved to Bogotá, where supposedly it has followed its course.

Things being as they are, Asotradeimene announced a march in Bogotá for next Monday, February 16, which will end in front of the United States Embassy, where more than three years ago several fired sick workers from Colmotores installed a tent to demand their rights. More than 20 workers will stay in this tent for an indefinite period. “The Tent of Resistance” is the name that they have given to this activity.

Published February 12, 2015.

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