Since last year, a broad coalition led by Colombian oil sector union USO has been advocating for the non-extension of Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales’ operating contract in Rubiales, the country’s most productive oil concession. In March national oil company Ecopetrol announced that it would not extend the contract, instead assuming control of Rubiales’ operations in 2016, which produce approximately 200,000 barrels of oil daily. USO sees this decision as a major victory due to the vast amounts of revenue that will be generated for the nation as a result, and criticizes Pacific Rubiales’ labor and environmental policies.
The dismissal, and its motive, have been called into question by Colombian policymakers and the international community. US and Canada-based union United Steelworkers stated that the action is a clear attempt to silence union activists, and violates ILO conventions and Colombia’s commitments to labor rights.
This event has added to an already tense relationship between union and employer in the context of mass dismissals of workers as part of Ecopetrol’s plans to cut investment by 25% in 2015. USO has indicated the possibility of a national strike, fearing Ecopetrol will attempt to gut its collective bargaining agreement with the union. Some 600 ICP workers were fired in Bucaramanga last month.
USO’s collective bargaining agreements with Ecopetrol have long set the standard for labor conditions in Colombia’s oil industry. Ecopetrol was founded when USO organized a national strike to demand the creation of a publically managed oil company in 1948. The company is 85% owned by the state and the Colombian government recently appointed Juan Carlos Echeverry, a close ally of President Santos, to be its new president.
Community Groups Gather in Buenaventura, Mark One Year Anniversary of Historic Peace March
On the heels of 187 murders, 39 reported forced disappearances and 4,745 inter-urban displaced people in the municipality of Buenaventura in 2013 alone, residents had reached a boiling point. Leaders representing congregations of faith, unions, students and Buenaventura’s diverse communities released a manifesto calling on the national government to respond to the humanitarian and social crisis in Buenaventura. On February 19th, 2014 over 30,000 residents of Buenaventura, dressed in white, flooded the streets of their city in an unprecedented demonstration of unity. People came together under a unified banner: “End violence and live with dignity in Buenaventura.”
The manifesto highlighted the alarming rates of violence as a result of the national government’s failure to comply with its constitutional obligation to ensure the population’s safety and welfare. Demands included an emergency response to the current crisis by the government and long term strategies for social investment and development. Protestors call for significant investment in healthcare, education, job development and access to vital infrastructure such as clean water and insist that the armed forces protect the citizens of Buenaventura.
A new coalition was formed in the wake of this massive mobilization, known as The March Committee, to push for proposed reforms. Today, one year since the march took place, community stakeholders gathered in efforts to keep pressure on the national government, celebrate limited victories and refocus public attention on key issues. A press conference, rally and cultural event was held in front of Buenaventura’s Mayoral offices. Diocese Héctor Epalza Quintero, the coalition’s most prominent leader, voiced the widely-felt sentiment that “one year after 30,000 residents marched in the streets of Buenaventura, the magic we have created here is embodied in the hope and solidarity that people have shown. The people have said ‘no’ to violence and fear. They say ‘yes’ to a different Buenaventura. It is a ray of hope and commitment on the part of the citizenry.”
Developments and Unfulfilled Promises
Murders in Buenaventura reportedly decreased by 38% in 2014, in relation to statistics for 2013. Many attribute this drop to a significant number of military agents temporarily deployed in the city. One community leader said that “the crisis in Buenaventura created a problem for President Santos’ re-election hopes. Unfortunately, once he was re-elected the military disappeared.’ Others have suggested that neo-paramilitary group Urabeños consolidated control of strategic neighborhoods, resulting in a temporary lull in its turf war with rival group La Empresa. In January, 2015 four clandestine graves were discovered in Barrio El Progresso, in Buenaventura’s Comuna 12, an area that local residents say has become a clandestine cemetery. Community leaders expressed hope that the decline in murders would continue in a downward trend, while also noting a need to investigate the relationship between higher rates of violence, displacement and murder in areas where new development projects are proposed or underway. Though eight prosecutors have been added in Buenaventura, rates of impunity remain alarmingly high.
Buenaventura’s healthcare network has shown signs of significant deterioration over the past year, underlined by the liquidation of its only public hospital. The closest full service hospital for the city’s 400,000 residents is now a three hour drive away in Cali. While the national government provided six new ambulances for the city in the past year, currently only 62 hospital beds are in operation for the city’s entire population. This week it was announced that plans for a refurbished hospital opening in April have been pushed back until at least November.
Private enterprise Hidropacífico assumed responsibility of Buenaventura’s water distribution in 2002, replacing public company Acuavalle, with the promise to bring fresh water to residents’ homes 24 hours a day . Thirteen years later service has declined notably, as a result of corruption, absentee political leadership and lack of oversight. The majority of the city’s residents have access to running water in their homes for no more than a few hours every other day. Community leader Narcilo Rosero Castillo explains that last year the government agreed to repair the water system in four key areas, and ensure potable water service to Buenaventura’s homes on a permanent basis by the end of October, 2015. While progress has been made to repair the intake system, nothing has been done to address deteriorating pipes, purify water or improve distribution. Residents demanded access to running water today, pouring buckets of water over their heads and chanting ‘Hidropacífico needs to go.’
Unemployment in Buenaventura continues to hover at a staggering 63%. The national government has proposed setting 5 billion pesos (roughly $2 million USD) aside for the artisanal and informal sectors of the Buenaventuran workforce, but according to Manuel Bedoya, president of the Artisanal Fisherman Association, the money has yet to materialize. Plans also exist to redevelop a small port for independent fishermen but, likewise, there is no evidence of advancements.
Moreover, little oversight is applied to ensure that legal standards are applied in the city’s existing jobs. Jhon Jhairo Castro, president of Buenaventura’s port workers union announced that a study conducted by the union to be published in March, examining labor conditions in the nation’s five largest ports revealed a widespread disregard for national labor laws and international conventions across the board. In Buenaventura, illegal subcontracting is so prevalent that workers often have four levels of separation between themselves and their employer. The average wage for a port worker in Buenaventura is a meager 646,000 pesos ($262 USD) a month, less than half of a port worker in Cartagena.
Humberto Hurtado, local representative of Colombian labor federation CUT, expressed concern regarding the Santos administration’s recent announcement of a 17 trillion peso (7 billion dollar) cut to social development nationally. Hurtado does not think government will be able to follow through on many of its commitments in Buenaventura.
In 2014, the Colombian government received over $2 billion USD in tax revenues from Buenaventura’s port-based commerce. The city’s residents feel this wealth is not being reinvested in the community. President Santo’s recent appointment of Luis Gilberto Murillo to oversee a new program called The Pacific Initiative is one promising sign, but this year residents of Buenaventura will look to the Colombian government to produce results by fulfilling recent commitments. As Epalza Quintero said today, “the government has turned its back on Buenaventura. Now is the time to extend a generous hand to our city in order to lift us out of our social and humanitarian crisis.”
On January 21st, a delegation of 150 national USO leaders, current and former workers Campo Rubiales workers, students, community members and environmentalists officially launched the new USO office in rural Puerto Gaitan.
Watch national USO leader, Fredy Pulecio speaking to workers:
The establishment of this new headquarters is a significant step for USO, which has not been able to maintain a permanent presence in the region since 2012 when it was forced to close its office due to death threats against its leaders and the murder of USO activist Milton Rivas. Norlay Acevedo, a former worker subcontracted by Pacific Rubiale was one of the leaders who received death threats, forcing him into exile in Chile in 2012. With the accompaniment of PASO, USO and the international labor movement, he has now returned to Campo Rubiales and is organizing workers.
PASO heads into 2015 with a renewed commitment to provide protection and support for USO and ACAAC with full-time international organizers in Meta’s Rubiales oil fields thanks to the support of UNIFOR. We are proud to have been an integral part of this campaign in Puerto Gaitan to allow the area’s workers and communities to demand compliance with labor, environmental, and social regulations on the part of government agencies and the private sector.
We are working with a broad coalition in Colombia and internationally on this campaign to advocate for democratic union representation, collective bargaining, environmental protections, and public policy that allows Colombians to benefit from this lucrative industry.
PASO will partner with the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CCAJAR) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) to carry out a human rights impact assessment regarding Canadian oil multinational Pacific Rubiales Energy (PRE) in Puerto Gaitan, Meta.
PRE was established a decade ago and has expanded rapidly. It ranks first among Canadian companies with operations in Colombia in terms of sales, followed by Meta Petroleum, Petrominerales, and Pacific Stratus Energy, all owned by PRE. It is the second most influential oil company in Colombia where it currently holds 40 oil concessions in exploration phases.
FIDH’s specific focus on PRE stems from the scale of the company’s growing operations in Colombia and neighboring countries as well as allegations made regarding its treatment of workers, local indigenous communities and the environment by organizations including the AFL-CIO, IndustriALL and the Canadian Labor Congress.
The study will use methodology developed by FIDH to examine possible violations of human rights, labor standards, the rights of indigenous communities, and environmental regulations according to domestic and international standards. It will analyze responsibilities, recommend remedies depending on findings and be published in the second semester of 2015.
Translated and posted with the permission of Unión Portuaria.
A Declaration Supporting the Movement Against Racism from the Port Workers Union, Buenaventura, Colombia.
Black lives matter in Buenaventura!
Today we are proud to stand with our brothers and sisters across the United States and around the world in response to the recent police killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown and countless other victims of state violence. We unite with the international community to say that ‘black lives matter.’ While it should be implicit that all lives matter, communities in recent days have risen up to reinforce the fact that black and brown human beings have an equal place on this earth, because often times it feels that we do not. As residents of Buenaventura, Colombia, we know that our city could not be a clearer example of state imposed racism, segregation and inequality.
Buenaventura, a city whose residents are 90% Afro-Colombian, is Colombia’s most important port, exporting over 60% of the country’s goods. In spite of the wealth that passes through our communtiy, we suffer from an unemployment rate four times higher than the national average, and 80% of our city’s residents live in poverty. While we support the ongoing talks being held in Cuba in order to end our country’s 50 year armed conflict, the only development that we have seen locally are emerging gangs that recruit our children and use increasingly brutal ways to murder our neighbors such as the casas de pique (chop houses). So today we take a stand as a community to say that ‘black lives matter.’
We stand here today as port workers whose bodies are broken every day to export the wealth of the country, while we don’t earn enough to feed our families. We stand as residents of one of the rainiest regions on the planet to demand that the city return our running water, something that disappeared when the system was privatized. We stand as workers with dangerous jobs, who live in a city that recently closed its only hospital. We stand here as parents afraid to let our children play outside or even go to school because gangs are trying to recruit them. We stand here today as people who have worked our entire lives but don’t have anything to show for it. We want a change. We stand here today as proud black people who demand that the local and national government stop ignoring our community and ensure basic human rights such as access to healthcare, dignified jobs, essential infrastructure and to the right to live in peace.
The residents of Buenaventura are uplifted by the tidal wave of people who have swelled into the streets of cities around the world to put an end to state-sanctioned violence against communities of color. We stand in solidarity with Ferguson and New York City and can feel the rumblings of marching feet in our own community.
Buenaventura’s Madres Comunitarias also expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this week.
Above: Union Sindical Obrera (USO) labor leaders at Nelson Medina’s funeral.
Two community activists have been murdered in the Colombian department of Meta in the last month and a half, in what oil and energy sector union USO condemns as a new chapter in a long history of systematic violence designed to weaken community and labor organizations in this petroleum-rich region.
Nelson Medina was murdered on Saturday, October 17th in Apiay, Meta where he acted as president of ARCA, a community-based organization that monitors and executes job-placement for local oil workers. Edith Santos was killed on August 29th in nearby Acacias. She was on the National Board of the union Sinproseg, which represents security officers, and president of the local Community Action Committee where her primary role was in the promotion of local jobs. Spokespersons from the union indicate that both victims were recognized leaders, actively involved in the region’s campaigns for social justice, and long-time USO allies.
This latest series of attacks comes as USO launches a new organizing campaign in the nearby conflict region of Puerto Gaitan, home to Colombia’s largest oil reserves, where the union is working in coalition with grassroots organization ACAAC (Environmental, Agrarian and Community Committee) to address issues such as regional employment, improved working conditions, and environmental protections (click here for more information).
Rodolfo Vecino, former President of the USO, indicates that “local labor intermediation has become a new way for organized crime to generate income throughout the country and increase its influence within the extractive industry”. Hector Sanchez, who presides over ACAAC, fears for his life: “we are denouncing the same type of corruption in Puerto Gaitan, where the mayors’ office has set up a labor intermediation committee, and is selling contracts to selected [oil sector] workers”.
This context of increased violence surrounding what Meta residents refer to as the “mafias of labor intermediation” has unfolded as the recently appointed Colombian Labor Minister indicates his intention to confront informal hiring practices in the oil industry. Although hiring through third-party intermediaries has been prohibited, the vast majority of oil sector workers continue to be employed in this manner.
PASO has partnered with Bogota municipal workers’ union Sindistritales to sign up scores of members over the past several months. The first fruits of this exciting new campaign are the result of the hard work of Sindistritales’ Health Care Committee and a strategy developed in collaboration with organizers from the Service Employees International Union – SEIU – hosted by PASO in Colombia earlier this year.
Sindistritales is fighting for labor formalization in Bogota’s 22 public hospitals so that workers can gain the right to collective representation and patients can enjoy access to quality health care. The union has brought a lawsuit against six of the district’s hospitals for refusing to expand their directly-hired workforce as ordered by Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Simultaneously, however, Sindistritales recognizes the importance of organizing outsourced workers and raising awareness among hospital workers about the union’s strategies and new laws that prohibit subcontracting core and permanent employees.
PASO brought unionists from SEIU CIR (Committee of Interns and Residents), Local 1021 and Local 1199 and to Colombia who met with the Sindistritales Executive Board and Health Care Committee to develop a long-term organizing strategy. Since June PASO and Sindistritales have been conducting outreach with workers at several of Bogota’s hospitals, building committees, and signing up new members, many of whom are subcontracted workers.
The most important lesson that has been learned from the first few months of this campaign is that many workers are eager to join a union fighting for patient care and to curb subcontracting. Even more importantly a new generation of workers, subcontracted as a result of the privatization of health care services, is looking for new ways to organize. Strategies employed by SEIU in the United States labor movement have proven to be useful tools in taking on similar challenges and new organizing strategies in Colombia.
Union Sindical Obrera (USO) was forced to suspend its work in Puerto Gaitan, Meta in 2011 due to a wave of antiunion violence and repression in which its leaders were threatened, beaten and murdered. Community leaders from Puerto Gaitan, where Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales Energy (PRE) extracts more than 210,000 barrels of oil daily from its largest concession alone, have suffered similar human rights violations and are denied employment. Land grabs, forcible displacement and hunger are other issues that affect the region.
In 2011, thousands of striking workers asked USO to collective represent them during negotiations with employers. The union bargained with PRE winning significant wage increases and vast improvement in housing/food services for the region’s workers. Violence and threats, however, forced USO to leave Puerto Gaitan. Subsequently PRE formed a company union (UTEN) and refused to hire any worker not affiliated, blacklisting thousands who had previously joined USO. In addition, the Colombian military acted in concert with Pacific Rubiales’ private security forces to physically prevent USO from entering the region (on public roads). Even a delegation organized by Colombian Senator Alexander Lopez was turned back (VIDEO) by agents of the armed forces who indicated that they responded only to the orders of ‘the company’.
PASO has partnered with Canadian union UNIFOR to accompany USO’s campaign to return to Puerto Gaitan, where some 20,000 oil workers live in almost complete isolation. Over the past several months, with the support and cooperation of the international labor movement, the United States and Canadian Embassies, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and the Colombian government, PASO and USO have been able to travel in the region and speak to hundreds of workers, the vast majority of whom earn significantly less than industry standards and lack legally-established pension and healthcare coverage. USO is also working with local communities who are concerned about environmental damage, corruption, lack of social investment, and lack of employment for local residents.
(Above) PASO also visited Schlumberger workers in Meta on strike for wage increases and local jobs. Workers have stopped all Colombian operations at the Texas-based multinational since Monday. Schlumberger employs some 700 workers in Colombia.
PASO International is extremely concerned about a rise in direct attacks targeting members of Colombian unions SINTRAELECOL, SINTRACARBON and USO. This rise in violence comes as the unions continue to develop talks and actions towards a 3-way merger that would make this new industrial mining/energy sector union one of the largest in the country.
Recently, on June 18th 2014, a grenade was thrown at the SINTRAELECOL union headquarters in Caldas, Colombia. On this occasion the pin was left in and the grenade did not explode. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) points out that the handling of evidence in this case and past cases has been questioned, and such attacks have gone largely unpunished.
Earlier in March of this year, PASO and the International Labour Rights Forum reported a series of attacks against veteran union leader and human rights advocate Mr. Óscar Arturo Orozco, President of the Caldas Local of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Energía de Colombia– SINTRAELECOL (Electrical Workers Union of Colombia) and the regional labor council of Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT). Mr. Orozco was speaking at a peaceful rally in the city of Manazles to demand the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement previously signed with the regional power generation company CHEC, a subsidiary of the large public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín (EPM). As Mr. Orozco was about to address those in attendance, he was struck in the face with a tear gas canister fired by an ESMAD agent at point blank range, caving in his left eye socket and cheekbone. After several surgeries, doctors were able to reconstruct his face, but he is now blind in his left eye. Numerous death threats and two attempts on his life during a 12 month period were a precursor to this attack.
SINTRACARBON, which represents Colombian coal sector workers, reported an attack on its members gathered for a peaceful protest most recently on June 21st 2014 in Riohacha. On this occasion, a large group of the National Police riot squad (ESMAD), proceeded to verbally and physically assault former employees of Sepecol Ltd. It is reported by those present, that stunning shots, rubber bullets, and tear gas were used against unarmed workers and their families. The union is protesting the recent layoff/lockout of some 800 workers.
Union Sindical Obrera (USO) is Colombia’s largest and oldest petroleum workers union. The union has experienced intense repression from actors on behalf of corporate entities along with the state, and in the past 25 years over 100 of their leaders have been killed. Most recently on June 9th, the vice president of the Barrancabermeja USO local, Ivan Guerrero Sanchez, fell victim to an attempt on his life, when a motorcyclist attempted to throw a live grenade into his vehicle. Fortunately this attempt on his life, the second against a USO representative in the Barrancabermeja local this year, was unsuccessful, as the grenade blew up just outside of the vehicle.
These incidents collectively form part of an ongoing series of cynical attacks against SINTRAELECOL, SINTRACARBON and USO members, notably during a period of amalgamation, restructuring and strengthening of these organisations in accordance with strategies set forth by CUT and with the support of IndustriALL Global Union. IndustriALL represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors and is a force in global solidarity taking up the fight for better working conditions and trade union rights around the world.