Pacific Rubiales Energy has over the last decade grown to be the largest independent oil company in South America. A result of a myriad of mergers between different companies, it can trace its presence in Colombia back to 1982 and made big inroads in the country with the 2008 acquisition of Kappa Energy. The Toronto-based oil giant today extracts around 20% of Colombia’s oil and has surpassed BP and Occidental to become the country’s largest extractor of oil behind the state-owned Ecopetrol.
The multinational giant, however, has been mired in controversy over the last few years. In 2011 it was embroiled in a clash with the Colombian government over security (. The company threatened to bring a halt to production unless they were given guarantees over security. Next year in 2012 it was put under investigation for obstructing environmental regulation by failing to provide a environmental compliance report and giving false information to environmental authorities.
Later that year it was ensnared in a bitter labor dispute. A Colombian-based NGO, Proyecto Gramalote, accused Pacific Rubiales of threatening to fire workers who wished to join labor unions. Spokesperson for the NGO, Felipe Harman, said that the company had responded aggressively to attempts at worker organization as well as to complaints by local of environmental damage.
Pacific Rubliales responded by creating their own “in-house” labor union called UTEL. The move was heavily criticized by the established national Colombian union for oil workers, Union Sindical Obrera (USO). USO president Rodolfo Vecino accused the Canadians of attempting to cut the legs out from under the USO. He said that the UTEL was assembled purely “to hinder the negotiation process that has been going on with USO.”
The criticisms of Pacific Rubliales have recently come to a head, prompting a convention last month in Puerto Gaitán, site of the company’s largest operation in Colombia, the Rubiales oilfield, to discuss the alleged abuses. Originally organized by Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia (REDHER), the conference was also led by the USO, Proyecto Gramalote and Corporacion Choapo, a grassroots social justice organization. They were joined over the weekend-long conference by a number of international organizations including labor unions and human rights groups such as Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie (PASC) and Peace Brigades International (PBI).
Speakers put forward numerous objectives for the event and for what they hoped would be achieved in the future. A center piece of the conference was to bring to light the social, economic and environmental problems that the organizers believe are caused by the presence of transnational corporations in Colombia. A recurrent theme was the charge than an asymmetry exists in the application of justice between such companies and the communities that are affected by their presence.
Proyecto Gramalote put forward its position that Ecopetrol should take over total operation of the Rubiales oilfield by 2016. It believes that full control would allow profits from the oil field to be put toward social programs for the nation and that there would be better union guarantees. The NGO also discussed how ownership by a majority state-owned company would lead to greater penal responsibility in the case of environmental or social damages as there would be a judicial body present to provide recourse through the law.
The highest profile speaker at the event was Senator Alexander Lopez. USO president Rodolfo Vecino claimed in 2012 that Lopez had been blocked from meeting with USO representatives when visiting a Pacific Rubliales worksite. Lopez said: “it’s very sad that the Colombian people have to come and judge this company and review the perverse actions on the part of the company. The way in which they enslave the workers. The way they degrade the our ecosystems and environment. How they displace our indigenous communities and campesinos. The way they take the sovereignty away from the territories.”
Asked about the time when he was stopped from entering a Pacific Rubiales he said that he was stopped by both the company and the army and police as well. He added: ” This illustrates the high levels of corruption and irresponsibility and anti-patriotism that Santos and his government has displayed.”
I asked him specifically about the Labor Action Plan, an agreement that was made between president Santos and president Obama to allay the fears about free trade agreements and the effects they might have on Colombian workers. He said that his office has produced several reports on the action plan, all of which show that it has been ineffective. He said: “The action plan was an excuse to sign the free trade agreement with the argument that we’re going to improve the conditions of Colombian workers but the exact opposite has happened. The work conditions here have gotten worse.”
Dave Coles, national president of the Canadian Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, was present at the event to lend support to USO as part of his union’s mandate is to assist unions in impoverished countries. He said: “multinational corporations are not abiding by the simplest of human rights conduct in Colombia.”
He said: “it is a poor reflection on the Harper/Obama government that they knowingly signed these agreements during a period of time when there are still huge human rights violations taking place in Colombia. And they did it to support the corporations.”
He added that Colombia is not living up to the human rights and labor rights provisions of the free trade agreements and that while that is not surprising given the nature of free trade agreements, he was shocked to uncover the extent of corporate control of the state. “The state of Colombia is owned lock, stock and barrel by the oil companies. They tell them what to do. The army is directed to de-unionize the energy sector. The army is directed to violate human rights and it is done with complete immunity. The state condones it.”
Some of the leadership of Pacific Rubiales are former members executives of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, including CEO Ronald Pantin. If Proyecto Gramalote’s goals were realized, Colombia’s oil industry would more closely resemble that of Venezuela in which PDVSA has a state monopoly on oil extraction. For now, Ecopetrol is a joint partner with Pacific Rubiales in Puerto Gaitán as part of a public-private set-up.