Days later, a fire broke out in a separate refinery, Cardón, leaving only one of five distillation units functioning. Workers reported that the emergency crew that responded could do little more than to watch the fire burn out on its own. They had run out of firefighting foam.
In the midst of it all, production came to a near-standstill, dropping to just 13 percent of capacity in early-December before rebounding slightly, Mr. Freites said. Three of Amuay’s distillation units and two at Cardón were functioning this week, the union leader said on Wednesday, but he added that another fire had broken out in Cardón on Tuesday causing injuries.
The disintegration of the refineries has left many workers dispirited.
Employees have lost all interest, said Emilio, a worker in the Cardón refinery who asked that his last name be withheld because he feared punishment by the authorities for criticizing the company. He said they were simply punching the clock.
Wage increases have lagged far behind soaring inflation and workers have seen their purchasing power drop markedly and benefits reduced sharply. Some employees have been forced to sell their gloves and helmets to put food on their family’s dinner table, workers said. Pride of association with Pdvsa has evaporated.
Before, people would be devastated if they lost a job at Pdvsa, said José, a worker in the Amuay refinery who also asked that his last name be withheld because he feared retribution from his bosses for speaking publicly about the company. Now, he said, many dread going to work and are looking for jobs elsewhere.
In recent years, the company has slashed the number of contractors employed at the refineries, said Mr. Freites, general secretary of the Oil and Gas Workers Union of Falcón State. But with production at a crawl, he said, even salaried workers are left with little to do, and many spend their days playing cards and dominoes.
Pdvsa’s downfall is rippling through this once-thriving company town. Roads are plunged into darkness at night because thieves have made off with the wires that carry power to the street lamps. Shops in the city’s downtown, once abuzz with commerce, are now shuttered.
Residents have migrated abroad in search of work and better lives. Hundreds of oil workers have signed three-year contracts in recent weeks to work for $ 10 an hour in construction helping the Caribbean island of St. Martin rebuild following the hurricanes.
José said he went to work every day wondering which of his colleagues would be the latest to leave; he compared the experience to a reality show. Pdvsa, he said, is now an empty shell.