Amid Venezuela’s asphyxiating Economy, Oil Workers Sell Boots and Uniforms for Food

In Ciudad Ojeda, an oil town that hugs the shores of Lake Maracaibo, food lines and shuttered shops dot the city of roughly 92,000

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FILE -- A customer looks at PDVSA overalls for sale at a market in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Sept. 11, 2016. VOA

For decades, jobs at Venezuela’s state-run oil giant, PDVSA, were coveted for above-average salaries, generous benefits and cheap credit that brought homeownership and vacationing abroad within reach for many workers.

Now, in Venezuela’s asphyxiating economy, even PDVSA employees are struggling to pay for everything from food and bus rides to school fees as triple-digit inflation eats away incomes.

They are pawning goods, maxing out credit cards, taking side jobs, and even selling PDVSA uniforms to buy food, according to Reuters’ interviews with two dozen workers, family members and union leaders.

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“Every day a PDVSA worker comes to sell his overall,” said Elmer, a hawker at the biggest market in the oil city of Maracaibo, as shoppers eyed pricey rice and flour imported from neighboring Colombia. “They also sell boots, trousers, gloves and masks.”

The bulk of PDVSA’s roughly 150,000 workers make $35 to $150 a month plus about $90 in food tickets, as calculated at the black market exchange rate. It is still more than many Venezuelans, but not enough, employees say.

“Sometimes we let the kids sleep in until noon to save on breakfast,” said a maintenance worker who works on the shores of Maracaibo Lake, Venezuela’s traditional oil producing area near the Colombian border. He said he has lost five kilos (11 pounds) this year because of scrimping on food.

Not as productive

The toll of the economic crisis is fueling worker disillusionment, absenteeism, and a brain drain, all of which hurt efficiency in the industry that produces more than 90 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue.

“Most of us aren’t as productive as we used to be, because we’re more focused on how to survive economically,” said the maintenance worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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That adds to other problems caused by a cash shortfall — from underinvestment and parts shortages to poor maintenance, theft and insufficient imports for blending.

FILE -- Venezuela's Oil Minister and President of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, Eulogio del Pino stands next to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a pro-government rally with workers of state-run oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela, VOA
FILE — Venezuela’s Oil Minister and President of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, Eulogio del Pino stands next to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro during a pro-government rally with workers of state-run oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela, VOA

As a result, the OPEC member’s oil output fell this year, dealing another blow to the unpopular government of leftist President Nicolas Maduro, who is already under pressure because of low international oil prices.

PDVSA, which did not respond to a request for comment, says its employees are happy, and state television regularly shows crowds of cheering PDVSA workers in red overalls. The company talks of a right-wing media campaign to discredit late leader Hugo Chavez’s “21st century Socialism.”

Bartering to eat

In Ciudad Ojeda, an oil town that hugs the shores of Lake Maracaibo, food lines and shuttered shops dot the city of roughly 92,000 and, for the first time, the opposition-led mayor’s office is organizing soup kitchens.

A former PDVSA worker, who quit earlier this year because he could earn more driving a taxi, said that in the past months he sold four overalls and one pair of boots to feed his three children. He bartered another pair of boots for meat. He also sold his furniture, including his dining table, to buy food.

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Further north at the massive Paraguana refining center, a mechanic and a father of two, recently offloaded new boots for roughly $7 — “cheap, so I could sell quickly and get food.”

Despite their anger, workers say they are afraid to protest. Because Chavez opponents tried to oust him by shutting down the oil industry in a months-long strike that started in 2002, stoppages are considered sabotage.

Oil workers duck out of work to stand in food lines, and people at the Petrocedeno heavy crude upgrader in eastern Venezuela say rowdy company cafeteria queues start an hour before lunch as workers jostle before food runs out.

Maduro blames these shortages on U.S.-backed businessmen he says are hoarding products to torpedo his government, an argument that still resounds with some workers.

“The situation is tough because of the economic war,” said PDVSA cook Moraima Reyes in Paraguana. “That’s why we’re defending the revolution more than ever.”

But many speak of leaving PDVSA or Venezuela altogether, joining a brain drain that has seen professionals flock to Colombia, Spain or Panama.

“What’s the point of working? It’s impossible to have a good quality of life,” a former automation specialist at PDVSA said in a phone interview. Last year he moved to the United States, where he has to hold several jobs, including in a restaurant and a car dealership.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “Whatever it takes to escape Venezuela’s communism.” (VOA)

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