International Labor Organization Tells Venezuela to Re-hire Oil Industry Employees

The ILO ruled that last year's oil industry shut-down could be considered a general strike, which would make the dismissals illegal. The Venezuelan government, says the employees were fired for sabotaging the oil company and because the strike was illegal

Caracas, March 29, 2004 ( In its most recent meeting, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association, decided to take up the issue of the 18,000 employees who were dismissed from the state oil company PDVSA, for having engaged in the two-month 2002-2003 oil industry shut-down. According to the ILO committee, the shut-down could be a considered a general strike and the firings would therefore be illegal. The committee thus urges that the employees be re-hired.

Last year, from December 2003 through January 2004, Venezuela’s opposition called for a general “work stoppage,” which many of the employees of Venezuela’s all-important oil industry followed. The “work stoppage,” which had as its goal the resignation of President Chavez, was promoted by Venezuela’s Federation of Chamber of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS), along with the oppositional union federation CTV. Inside the oil industy it was promoted by administrative and upper management employees. As a result, it was to a very large extent a lock-out and not a strike. Also, the government says that it could not be considered a strike because it did not involve any labor disputes, but had as its only goal a political objective, the resignation of the president.

The shut-down led to a 29% drop in the country’s GDP for the first quarter of 2003, and to a total drop of approximately 10% for all of 2003. Unemployment rose dramatically as a result, going from 15 to 23% in less than three months and the accompanying capital flight led to currency exchange controls that are still in effect. Venezuela depends on oil exports for 80% of its foreign income and 50% of the government budget.

While the oppositional union federation CTV celebrated the pronouncement, President Chávez, in his weekly television program Aló Presidente, said that the ILO ought to come to Venezuela and see the “true victims of the oil sabotage.” Government officials and supporters consistently describe the oil industry shut-down as a “sabotage,” because they say that before the employees left their work places, they damaged much of the oil industry’s equipment. President Chavez listed several examples of accidents that happened in people’s homes when they stored gasoline due to the shortage or the problems people had when they ran out of gasoline in emergency situations. Also, some of the most damaging aspects of the shut-down involved tankers that blocked Venezuela’s harbors, so that no oil could be exported.

President Chávez called the ILO committee “hypocritical Pharisees” and compared them to the “sadly celebrated Inter-American Commission on Human Rights… who say they defend human rights, but … don’t say anything about the kidnapping of President Aristide [of Haiti], who was kidnapped by the U.S. Military, put onto a plane and taken to the Central African Republic.” Chávez added that the state oil company PDVSA would never re-hire the fired employees.

Oppositional union officials now say that if the Committee’s recommendations are not followed, the issue could be ratified by the ILO’s General Assembly. If the Venezuelan government still refuses to comply, the next level would be the International Court of Justice.

Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Jesus Perez, said that organizations such as the ILO and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights should not keep acting based on one-sided information provided by political opponents of the government. He promised to provide information that will clarify the government’s position on the matter.