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.

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