Colombia Reports | Friday, 14 October 2011 15:42 James Bargent
Colmbian oil workers union USO have warned that Canadian oil company Pacific Rubiales could see a repeat of last September’s protests that brought production grinding to a halt if the company pull out of negotiations with contracted workers next week.
USO President Rodolfo Vecino spoke to Colombia Reports on Friday after the conclusion of a four-day “Humanitarian Action” caravan, which saw over 500 people from more than 50 unions and social movements travel to the troubled town of Puerto Gaitan, stopping in communities affected by the oil company on the way.
Vecino said the aim of the caravan was to “bring the voice of solidarity to the workers and communities” as well as highlighting the conditions in labor camps and rural communities and discussing negotiations with the workers.
As the caravan prepared to set out over the weekend, Pacific Rubiales announced they had reached a union agreement establishing a minimum wage, set shift patterns and a program of improving working conditions.
However, USO and another union involved in the caravan, CUT, did not sign the agreement. According to USO, the union that signed, UTEN, was established only to represent the minority of workers directly employed by the company.
Vecino said, “There has been this situation where Pacific Rubiales had a union that has intervened and [the company] has set a trap where they affiliate workers directly employed by the company to this union.”
According to USO, UTEN has 700 members, while USO has 5,000 and claims to represent 12,000 workers who are contracted by the oil giants.
Vecino said USO had submitted six negotiating points to the company and so far they have only discussed one.
On Wednesday, the union is due to meet with company and government representatives once more. Vecino said the meeting will “define whether Pacific Rubiales is going to continue at the negotiating table and consider the demands of the workers or if it will definitively retire from the table.”
According to the unionist, if the negotiations fail the company could see more protests, the last of which cost the Colombian state an estimated $10 million and the company much more.
Vecino said, “the workers are protesting because undoubtedly they [the company] are not leaving them any choice and maybe, doing these protests and these marches they will pay more attention and they will respect [workers] rights.”
Justice for Colombia | Wednesday, 12 October 2011
The Caravan sets off
Since June the Rubiales oil field, which produces some 20% of Colombian oil, has been severely affected by the mobilisation of some 12,000 subcontracted workers protesting at poor working conditions that they claim amount to ‘slavery’. After beginning their dispute the workers joined the USO oil workers union, which has since led negotiations on their behalf. The lack of response by the company resulted in protests and demonstrations by workers and local inhabitants of Puerto Gaitan angry at poor working conditions, environmental damage and massive social inequality which contrast sharply with the riches produced by the oil fields. These demonstrations were met by blockading tactics by the subcontracting companies, and violent repression by police in which many workers were injured.
The protests resulted in the establishment of a series of roundtables to deal with different aspects of the conflict, with negotiations between the CUT trade union federation, the USO, and representatives of Pacific Rubiales and the Government. However, according to the USO and the CUT these negotiations have yet to reach any agreement.
By contrast Colombia media have trumpeted an “agreement” reached by workers and Pacific Rubiales in Puerto Gaitan. When the CUT and the USO rejected this agreement, it made them look as if they were rejecting a process of negotiation as a whole. However, the truth is that this new agreement was not signed by a union party to the dispute. Between 4th and 6th of October the CGT trade union confederation established a new trade union for permanent contracted staff employed directly by Pacific Rubiales. These workers earn far higher wages and enjoy much better conditions than their sub-contracted subordinates. The union established for them, called UTEN, has 700 members. By contrast the USO has over 5,000 members in the disputed oil fields, and its demands represent over 12,000 workers. It was the UTEN which reached an agreement with Pacific Rubiales, and not the USO or the subcontracted workers. The fact that this agreement was signed hours before a “Humanitarian and Labour Caravan” set out from Bogota to Puerto Gaitan to show solidarity with the protesting workers and to highlight the fact that the protests were ongoing, raises suspicions that it was a manoeuvre carried out to overshadow this new demonstration. According to the USO “It is a unilateral measure designed to distract public opinion from the real issues.”
The Caravan was organised by the USO and the CUT and was made up of trade union delegates from across the country, as well as representatives of other social movements. The aim was to update them on the situation on the ground, highlight the dispute, expose the lack of social investment in the region as a whole, and to try to counter the disinformation campaign that the Colombian media have carried out around the dispute.
According to Edwin Sanchez, a subcontracted worker at the strike, labour conditions lay at the heart of the dispute. Workers slept in tents for weeks on end with no sanitary facilities, leading workers to protest that they had come to sell their labour, not their dignity. Furthermore, workers were routinely employed on one month contracts, and were then sent home wondering if it would be renewed the next month. Their pay did not include transport costs (often considerable in a country as big as Colombia). Since the protests began thousands of workers have not had their 1-month contracts renewed, and others have had their pay put on hold “until the dispute is over.” Meanwhile the companies are promising to hire more local labour, but it has been silent on the fate that awaits the workers that have participated in the strike.
Meanwhile striking workers complain that the police and the armed forces have been used to threaten and intimidate them, with police helicopters recently dropping stun grenades and tear gas onto them.Columbian oilfield workers organize despite acts of violence
As Congress prepares to debate a trade agreement with Columbia, another murder of a Columbian trade union activists casts doubt on the effectiveness of the Labor Action Plan that the US and Columbia negotiated in April. The Labor Action Plan was supposed to address a major stumbling block that has held up approval of the trade deal–violence against union leaders and supporters in Columbia is pandemic making it the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.
Isidro Rivera Barrera was repairing a washing machine in his front yard on September 26 when two men on a motorcycle approached. One got off the motorcycle and shot Rivera three times, mortally wounding him. Rivera was an activist in the Union Sindical Obrera (USO), which has been organizing workers in Columbia’s booming oilfields.
Work in Columbia’s oilfields is low paying and dangerous. It is done mostly by contract workers without long-term labor contracts hired by contractors and subcontractors, who are in turn are hired by the oil companies to avoid complying with Columbia’s labor laws. Many of these workers are migrants who live in squalid, temporary housing that one worker compared to concentration camps.
USO, which represents workers at Columbia’s national oil company Ecopetrol, has been helping these contract workers to organize. Last summer about 10,000 people rallied in the oil town of Puerto Gaitan to demand fair treatment for the contract oil workers. They blockaded roads leading to the oilfields temporarily shutting down production in the fields owned by Pacific Rubiales, a Canadian company.
The fields reopened after the company and representatives of the workers negotiated an agreement to improve conditions in the field. But when the company dragged its feet implementing the agreement, contract workers and their supporters in September once again erected blockades and halted production.
The blockades lasted for three days. Columbian riot police were called to the scene and, according to a petroleum engineer who was at the site, launched teargas and bombs containing screws, bolts, and nails toward strikers who had gathered for breakfast resulting in a melee that injured both workers and police.
Workers finally returned to work when three-party talks began among the company, the government, and workers’ representatives. The sides agreed to establish an arbitration board to address the issues raised by the workers, including making the contract workers regular company employees, improving pay, improving working conditions, and protecting worker’ right to join a union.
In the meantime, Pacific Rubiales announced that it would hire local people to fill the unskilled positions at the Puerto Gaitan oilfield, a concern that led some local workers to support the strikers, donate $1 million to a hospital serving the people of Puerto Gaitan, and build 3,000 new housing units.
But USO said that these gestures weren’t enough and did not address the main demand of the union workers–that work at the oilfields should be regular, full-time work, not temporary, contract work.
To press their demand, USO this week began a solidarity caravan to publicize the conditions under which most oilfield workers labor, to show support for similar strikes that have taken place in oilfields near Corcel and Guatiquia, and to demand that 800 contract oilfield workers who have been fired for union activity get their jobs back.
The caravan, which will last about a week, starts on October 10 in Bogata, Columbia’s capital, travels to the Campo Rubioles oil fields where the union will hold a rally. It then goes to Puerto Gaitan, stays there for two days, and returns to Bogata on Thursday for another rally.
USO’s organizing campaign and the caravan are remarkable given the dangers faced by that Columbian workers who try to organize. This year alone, 23 trade union leaders and activists have been murdered, 16 since the Labor Action Plan was signed.
Futures and Commodity Market News, Bogota, Oct 10, 2011 (EFE via COMTEX)
A caravan of Colombian and international labor activists left this capital Monday bound for an oil field in the eastern province of Meta operated by Canada-based Pacific Rubiales Energy, which has been embroiled for months in a dispute with its workers and surrounding communities.
About 200 people set out from Bogota's National Park less than a day after news of an agreement between the company and the disgruntled employees.
News accounts said the pact was signed by Pacific Rubiales managers and newly organized workers at the Puerto Gaitan operation.
Senior government officials witnessed the negotiations and the company has no plans to disclose the terms, a source with Pacific Rubiales in Bogota told Efe.
Colombia's USO oil workers union said the deal was not genuine,
"It has been a dirty move brought about by Pacific Rubiales and a sector of the government, in this case, the Ministry of Mines and Energy," USO chief Rodolfo Vecino told Efe.
The company achieved the "alleged accord" in just a few days by subverting an earlier set of assurances Pacific Rubiales offered the USO and the government with the aim of restoring full production in Puerto Gaitan, he said.
The caravan, organized by the USO in conjunction with Colombia's main union federation, the CUT, is due to reach Puerto Gaitan on Friday.
Once there, organizers plan to hold a forum on the oil industry and to hand out USO membership cards to 5,000 workers.
The caravan includes representatives of the U.S. AFL-CIO, the International Trade Union Confederation and the World Federation of Trade Unions.
About 12,000 direct employees and contractors are linked to the Pacific Rubiales operation in Puerto Gaitan, where the company pumps around 225,000 barrels per day of crude - a quarter of Colombia's oil output.
Workers' protests for better pay and working conditions have been joined by area residents who complain of environmental problems created by the drilling and demand that the company do more to promote economic growth and job creation in the region. EFE
jgh/dr Copyright (C) 2011. Agencia EFE S.A.