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Workplace hazards, fairness for subcontracted workers top union demands

Workers at the Colombian mine that provides coal to NB Power’s plant in Belledune are on strike as of February 7th. The strike marks the first workers’ action to stop work at the mine in the union’s 22 year history.

Sintracarbón, the union representing workers at the Cerrejón mine, the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, in La Guajira, Colombia, decided to strike in light of the company’s failure to meet their demands.

Seven hundred workers are reporting serious health problems incluFONSECA 5-smding blood lead poisoning, black lung disease and spinal injuries. The union is demanding dignity for subcontracted workers and expressing concern over how the mine affects local people and the planned diversion of Rancheria River that will affect thousands.

On November 29th, following Colombian law in their collective bargaining process, the union handed over a list of demands to the company related to workers’ health and occupational hazards, treatment of subcontracted workers and concerns for the environment and communities in La Guajira peninsula.

Cerrejón, owned by mining multinational giants Glencore-Xstrata, Anglo American and BHP Billiton, has approximately 13,000 workers of which 60% are subcontracted, working for over 300 contractor companies. The subcontracted workers earn on average 30% less than those directly employed by the mine. They work 12 hour days and are prevented from organizing unions.

Members of the mine workers’ union say their negotiating committee is being met with a smear campaign initiated by the company.

The union is also denouncing the interference of Colombia’s Ministry of Labour in the collective bargaining process and the government of Colombia’s false reporting of bloated wages.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently stated that the workers make on average 5 to 5.5 million pesos a month (approx. $ 3,000 USD). The union says this is false and reports their salary ranges between 800,000 pesos ($445 USD for workers at apprentice level) and 3,555,000 pesos ($2,000 USD for top wage earning workers with seniority more than 20 and 30 years). The union says that the government is including the astronomical salaries and perks enjoyed by the senior executives of the company in their calculation of average salary. The union is denouncing such claims as irresponsible on the onset of a strike.

According to the union, Cerrejón is prepared to invest $1,300 million in technology but refuses to increase its current labour costs by just 3%, which would amount to 6.5% of their total revenues.

Brent Staeben with NB Power says that they are “comfortable with their choice” when referring to the provincially-owned Crown corporation’s sourcing of coal from Cerrejón. Staeben says that they are following the events there and are aware that the company offered a five per cent wage increase to the union but the union rejected it.

Wages are not the only concern of the workers. According to Sintracarbón, over 700 workers at the mine are currently suffering job-related illnesses and injuries. Some workers suffer lead poisoning, others suffer from black lung disease and some have permanent spinal injuries.

The union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the sick and injured workers. The Attorney General’s office will inspect the mine this month to verify the number of cases of severe illness and the impact of mining on public health.

According to the union, Cerrejón refuses to recognize or take action on occupational diseases and recognize constitutional rights of all its employees. The union complains of poor health care provided by Coomeva, a company that they say has not invested in health infrastructure.

In view of the international agreements signed by Colombia and recognizing the dignity of all workers at Cerrejón, Sintracarbón negotiators are demanding improved working conditions for the 7,000 outsourced workers at the mine. The union says that the workers are being denied employment rights, health care and basic freedoms.

According to the union, the company has not responded to concerns about the diversion of the Rancheria River, a decision that threatens the life of the only river of La Guajira and thousands of people who depend it. They argue that the company should be using modern mining methods that have a smaller environmental footprint.

The union is also disappointed with the response of the company regarding its relationship with local communities that have been displaced for mining and are suffering because of the mine’s impact on their livelihoods.

Coal from Colombia has been dubbed “Colombian blood coal” because of violent displacement of communities and assassinations of union leaders at the country’s coal mines. Unsafe working conditions claimed 14 lives in the first 11 years of the mine’s operations.

Since the development of Cerrejón in 1982, Colombians and solidarity activists from the home countries of the multinationals that own the mine have decried the violent forced displacement of indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities for the mine. During the violent displacement of the Tabaco community, several people sustained serious injuries after being attacked by police.  Traditional agriculture-based livelihoods have been destroyed by dispossession of the land and industrial contamination.

The displacement of communities is ongoing. Residents of Roche, except for eight families, have moved to “New Roche.” The families that refused to move are protesting the resettlement, saying it was rushed without community involvement and community leaders were marginalized.

“They have been ‘in resistance’ for over a year, and the company has now begun an expropriation process.  Expropriation is a lengthy legal process, it can take up to two years, but when it’s approved by all of the Colombian authorities, they will go in and remove the people by force, as they did in Tabaco.  So there has been a lot of tension escalating and a few incidents,” says Aviva Chomsky, who was recently in Colombia acting as an observer in negotiations between the families and the company. Cerrejon coal used to be burned at the power plant in Salem, Massachusetts, where Chomsky lives and teaches history and Latin American studies at Salem State College. The power plant is in the process of being shut down.

“Everyone felt that we made a lot of progress with the negotiations. But then with the strike, they suspended them again. Meanwhile the expropriation case continues inexorably on, and tensions are rising again,” says Chomksy.

The Fredericton Peace Coalition wrote President Santos and Labour Minister Rafael Pardo Rueda on Jan. 21st expressing concern over the safety of union leaders, Igor Díaz López and Adlo Amaya Raúl Daza, their families and other union members in light of recent death threats. The coalition asked that Colombian authorities take measures to protect the union members and their families.

All of the coal extracted from Cerrejón is exported. Colombian coal serves the energy demands of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the northeastern U.S. and European countries.

by Tracy Glynn NB Media copp