Article posted with the permission of ILRF and USLEAP. See original version in the USLEAP Fall 2015 Newsletter HERE.
By Caitrin McKee and Catherine Cain
Petroleum Company Blocks Union Vote Despite “Equitable” Certification
In Puerto Gaitan, Meta, Colombia, petroleum workers who joined the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) in June are fighting for the union’s recognition by long-time labor rights abuser Pacific Exploration and Production Corp (formerly known as Pacific Rubiales, or “Pacific”), Colombia’s fifth largest corporation.
Since then, the company’s local subsidiary has refused to engage in contract negotiations, which gave workers the legal right to vote on a strike in August. But the company prevented workers from assembling for the vote during the 20-day period allowed. The workers’ fate is now in the hands of the Colombian Ministry of Labor, but the USO is not optimistic given the Ministry’s history of favoring business interests over workers’ rights.
Pacific claims to honor workers’ freedom of association, emphasizing that over 50% of its workers belong to an organization called the Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Energética Nacional (UTEN). Indeed, the UTEN’s high membership enabled Pacific to be certified as “socially responsible” by an organization called Equitable Origins (EO) in late 2014. But it’s worth examining just how “free” workers’ association to the UTEN really is.
USLEAP sent a letter of protest to Equitable Origins in December 2014, in coordination with a formal AFL-CIO complaint citing Pacific’s well-documented history of repressing workers’ rights. In fact, the USO was forced out of Pacific’s oil fields at gunpoint in 2011, after it negotiated a collective bargaining agreement for workers. Over 3,000 USO members were fired and blacklisted, and many received death threats (a criminal complaint filed by USO against Pacific is still ongoing).
Following USO’s exile, Pacific forced workers to join the UTEN (or lose their jobs), a tactic designed to protect company interests and prevent independent union organizing. In early 2015, the USO was able to re-open an office in Puerto Gaitan with support from international accompaniment organizations like USLEAP ally, PASO International. But in July 2015, police and military officials visited USO’s regional office at midnight – in vans marked with the Pacific logo. Meanwhile, 17 direct employees who had joined the USO have left due to company threats and dismissals, and the USO estimates that Pacific’s workforce has plummeted from its 2013 peak of 14,000 to only 3,150.
Repression of Rights Defenders Continues
Community activist and former Pacific worker, Hector Sanchez Gomez, has repeatedly suffered retaliation for his continued advocacy on behalf of Pacific workers. Since 2011, Hector has been falsely accused of criminal activities in an attempt to smear and neutralize him. Even more disturbing, Hector received a call on June 1, 2015 informing him that an assassin had been paid roughly USD $3,600 to kill him. (Colombia saw 34 human rights defenders assassinated in the first six months of 2015.)
While the Ministry of Labor did push Pacific to agree to a meeting with the USO in August, the company continues to cite a lack of formal censure by the Ministry as evidence that it complies with the law. In October, the USO announced that it was filing an additional complaint with the Ministry, which is obligated to oversee an arbitration panel, and called for international solidarity with their cause. The Ministry of Labor, however, absolved Pacific of wrongdoing following past complaints, and it has since neglected to fulfill its promises to improve labor law enforcement as part of the U.S.- Colombian Free Trade Agreement signed in 2011.
Equitable Origins and the Ministry of Labor Must Act
Pacific’s union-busting clearly violates both Colombian law and the criteria of its certification by Equitable Origins. Since last year’s complaint, EO has conducted an internal review, published the company’s and auditor’s responses to its allegations, pledged stronger auditor training, and modified its standards to emphasize non-interference of employers in their workers’ union affiliation decisions. But in April 2015 it announced that a decision on de-certification would be delayed until after a verification audit could be completed over the summer.
Following an inquiry from USLEAP and PASO on September 3rd, EO stated that the audit occurred in August and promised to share results “in the coming weeks,” but it had not provided information as of early November. EO’s slow response to complaints calls into question how reliable these social certification bodies can be in upholding workers’ rights. And USO workers are not optimistic that they will prevail over the company through the arbitration panel process.
Equitable Origins must not serve as a smokescreen for Pacific’s anti-union behavior. While EO delays publicizing results of its audit, and the Ministry of Labor fails to hold Pacific accountable, Pacific continues to tout its “social responsibility” and further undermine legitimate union organizing. USLEAP will continue to follow the situation and support efforts to pressure EO and the Ministry of Labor to meet their obligations to workers.
This article exclusively reflects the point-of-view of the authors and does not reflect the opinions of PASO