In the department of Meta, mostly around the town of Puerto Gaitan, there are some 12,500 subcontracted workers labouring in terrible conditions for companies such as Pacific Rubiales, Ecopetrol, Secolsa. The working conditions are so poor that they violate both ILO conventions and Colombian national law. During July workers began a series of protests to achieve improvements in their work conditions. Thousands went on strike and many joined the USO oil workers’ union, despite government efforts to break up peaceful protest camps, the arrest of trade union activists, and hostility from private security companies.
The protests were successful in forcing the government and the companies to agree to a forum that took place on August 3rd, in which the Vice President, Angelino Garzon participated. This forum decided on 4 main points of dialogue and agreed that sacked workers would be rehired, and there would be no reprisals against workers. It also decided that within 15 days 8 working groups would be established which would deal with a variety of topics that concerned the protesting workers, including labour conditions, salaries and environmental issues.
However, the USO oil workers’ union reports that the established time frame has elapsed and not a single working group has been convened. Furthermore, the union reports that the subcontracting companies (MR, Intricon, Electrico Medellin, Duflo SA, and Montajes JM) have begun to actively persecute their workers for having participated in the protests and for having joined the USO. Some 70 workers have been fired from their jobs, and others are being sent forms threatening them with the sack unless they leave the union. Other workers are being asked to re-confirm that they want their union subs deducted from their wages, despite agreement to this being a condition of joining the union. The USO also reports that the companies are still refusing to hire local labour, and instead are bussing in unskilled workers from Bogota.
In the meantime the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection which deals with labour disputes has claimed that its representatives have visited Meta 162 times to negotiate with workers. However, according to USO this is not true. A few visits have been made by Ministry functionaries, but they have refused to meet with Union and community representatives, and have only met with company management.
This underlines the Colombian government’s ingrained hostility towards organised labour, and its lack of good faith in negotiations with trade unions. In the face of this hostility and the government’s failure to take the desperate situation of the workers seriously, the unions and local communities are once more preparing to mobilise.
Justice for Colombia | on: Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Oil workers resumed their protests in Puerto Gaitan in the Colombian department of Meta last week, once again confronting security forces. The new protests come after the Colombian government and the Canadian oil company Pacific Rubiales failed to fulfill promises made during last month’s oil workers’ strike. In July, 10,000 oil workers walked out of several multinational oil companies to protest subcontractor layoffs and dismal working conditions.
However less than a month later Pacific Rubiales and its partner, the Colombian majority state-owned, Ecopetrol, have failed to change their employment strategy. Both companies primarily depend on subcontractors that employ thousands of workers paying low wages and few benefits. As I discussed in a previous blog, Pacific Rubiales’ subcontractors also largely recruit from remote areas, refusing to hire from the local community. Now the residents of Puerto Gaitan are demanding that these companies hire more of its unemployed work force.
Behind the Oil Workers’ Strike in Colombia, Nazih Richani, July 27, 2011
Multinational Corporations in Colombia: Land Grab, Nazih Richani, June 7, 2011
Buenaventura, Colombia: Where Free Trade Meets Mass Graves, Kelly Nicholls and Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, NACLA Report on the Americas July/August 2011
USO, the Colombian Oil Workers’ Union has reported that oil workers assembled in a peaceful protest in Puerto Gaitan, Meta department were attacked by Colombian riot police firing tear gas, baton rounds and throwing stun grenades and pipe bombs, resulting in several workers being injured, one of whom lost an eye.
The dispute is centred on workers contracted to Pacific Rubiales Energy, who have been protesting against the company’s refusal to negotiate a series of labour issues with them at two sites in Rubiales and Quifo.
The workers protest that their labour rights are being violated, that the company has fixed low wages unilaterally and that workers are poorly treated and kept in unhealthy conditions in their work camps. On the 18th July workers at the two sites called in reps from the USO, who left the nearest town, Puerto Gaitan at 10.30am. However, on the way to the sites the union reps were blocked by security guards employed by the company who had blocked the road with trucks and a bulldozer. Eventually the union reps managed to negotiate their way through the blockade, arriving at the camp in the early evening.
They found over 4 thousand workers assembled, heard their many complaints, and took photos to corroborate what they were being told. A meeting was arranged between the union and government and representatives of Pacific Rubiales, but the company refused to participate in it. Meanwhile the government demanded that the workers call off the protest.
The following morning at 5am riot police attacked the camp firing rubber bullets and tear gas and even throwing home-made pipe bombs. Tents were set alight by the bombs, which caused chaos in the camp and several workers were injured. Having been expelled from the oil installations, the workers and the USO are not being allowed to return by Pacific Rubiales.
In a declaration the USO has said that “violence is not the solution to the problem” and demands that the government provide the necessary conditions for the free and unhindered exercise of trade union activity. The protest continues, and the USO has said that it will lift the protest as long as there is no retaliation of any kind against the workers involved in the dispute, and as long as the company and the government agree to meet with the union to discuss the worker’s demands.
Justice for Colombia | on: Tuesday, 26 July 2011