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, including the brutal murder of former USO member Milton Rivas. 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 also been murdered, received death threats, or been forcibly displaced.
In 2011, thousands of striking workers called on USO for representation. 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.
Legal Repression Targets USO Leaders
Dario Cardenas, Vice President of the USO Meta Sub Directive (local union), was arrested in 2013 on dubious charges related to 2011 protests in Puerto Gaitan and remains behind bars. This case is part of a broader situation in which Colombian activists are being jailed to prevent their work in the defense of human and labor rights and repress protests.
PASO urges the international community, foreign embassies in Bogota, and the Colombian government to take measures to guarantee the life and physical integrity Mr. Cardenas, and assure that his constitutional rights are respected. In addition, we urge all authorities to ensure that USO leaders are able to exercise labor-related activities in an unmolested fashion in Puerto Gaitan as the union moves forward. Please contact us for more information or if you would like to get involved.
(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.
(Photos John O’Shea)