MEDELLIN, Colombia – Colombian authorities are investigating accusations a Canadian resources company has used threats and intimidation to bust up union activity.
USO, a Colombian labour union, has filed a complaint with the country’s Attorney General alleging Toronto-based Pacific Rubiales Energy is trying to quash union activity and even blacklisting some workers affiliated with unions.
No formal charges have been laid.
Pacific Rubiales, for its part, denies all allegations against it, says many of its employees are unionized and it allows union workers onto its property as long as they’re peaceful. The company’s legal counsel suggested USO’s allegations are motivated in part because some of the company’s employees are part of a different union.
Union officials said employees have been forced to sever ties with their union in order to get work. They say roads have been blocked, and checkpoints used, to keep their delegations away.
“We feel like we’re fighting against a monster,” said USO President Rodolfo Vecino.
Workers’ rights advocate Campo Elias Ortiz says he lives in fear after trying to unionize labourers.
He’s been a crusader for workers rights for years – something that’s earned him criminal charges ranging from damaging property to terrorism. He denies all the charges and says he’s been convicted of none.
But now he believes his life is at risk.
Ortiz said he’s been threatened with death from two men confronting him in a grocery store since trying to help unionize workers at the Canadian company’s Colombian work sites.
He said he’s afraid his family is at risk, as well.
“They told me, ‘You are going to die if you continue with USO. We know who you are. and we know your family, who you work with,’” he told Global News.
Ortiz said he doesn’t know who was behind the alleged threat.
A delegation of Canadian civil society representatives was in Colombia last week to participate in a “popular hearing” regarding the complaint. The hearing was organized by Columbian social organizations, including the USO, according to a recent press release issued by a Québec union organization participating in the event.
Pacific Rubiales calls any suggestion of violence “absurd” and “without ground.”
“That’s just patently absurd. There’s no way our company would involve itself in any threats or physical violence with any worker,” said legal counsel Peter Volk. “We don’t engage in strong-arming.”
The company says it has never asked any worker to renounce union membership; Pacific says 1,154 of its workers are affiliated with a union, but with another organization called UTEN.
The company also pointed out its investments in social development in the country, calling itself “the leading extractive company in Corporate Social Responsibility.”
“USO is trying any other tactic they can find in order to gain traction where they have failed directly with the workers they are appealing to,” Volk said. “They are welcome to make those claims and have them investigated. … We are entirely comfortable it’ll be proven completely false.”
*With files from Jeremy Hunka