Still No Agreement For Subcontracted Workers in Rubiales

News from Colombia | on: Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Caravan sets off

The Caravan sets off

Since June the Rubiales oil field, which produces some 20% of Colombian oil, has been severely affected by the mobilisation of some 12,000 subcontracted workers protesting at poor working conditions that they claim amount to ‘slavery’. After beginning their dispute the workers joined the USO oil workers union, which has since led negotiations on their behalf. The lack of response by the company resulted in protests and demonstrations by workers and local inhabitants of Puerto Gaitan angry at poor working conditions, environmental damage and massive social inequality which contrast sharply with the riches produced by the oil fields. These demonstrations were met by blockading tactics by the subcontracting companies, and violent repression by police in which many workers were injured.

The protests resulted in the establishment of a series of roundtables to deal with different aspects of the conflict, with negotiations between the CUT trade union federation, the USO, and representatives of Pacific Rubiales and the Government. However, according to the USO and the CUT these negotiations have yet to reach any agreement.

By contrast Colombia media have trumpeted an “agreement” reached by workers and Pacific Rubiales in Puerto Gaitan. When the CUT and the USO rejected this agreement, it made them look as if they were rejecting a process of negotiation as a whole. However, the truth is that this new agreement was not signed by a union party to the dispute. Between 4th and 6th of October the CGT trade union confederation established a new trade union for permanent contracted staff employed directly by Pacific Rubiales. These workers earn far higher wages and enjoy much better conditions than their sub-contracted subordinates. The union established for them, called UTEN, has 700 members. By contrast the USO has over 5,000 members in the disputed oil fields, and its demands represent over 12,000 workers. It was the UTEN which reached an agreement with Pacific Rubiales, and not the USO or the subcontracted workers. The fact that this agreement was signed hours before a “Humanitarian and Labour Caravan” set out from Bogota to Puerto Gaitan to show solidarity with the protesting workers and to highlight the fact that the protests were ongoing, raises suspicions that it was a manoeuvre carried out to overshadow this new demonstration. According to the USO “It is a unilateral measure designed to distract public opinion from the real issues.”

The Caravan was organised by the USO and the CUT and was made up of trade union delegates from across the country, as well as representatives of other social movements. The aim was to update them on the situation on the ground, highlight the dispute, expose the lack of social investment in the region as a whole, and to try to counter the disinformation campaign that the Colombian media have carried out around the dispute.

According to Edwin Sanchez, a subcontracted worker at the strike, labour conditions lay at the heart of the dispute. Workers slept in tents for weeks on end with no sanitary facilities, leading workers to protest that they had come to sell their labour, not their dignity. Furthermore, workers were routinely employed on one month contracts, and were then sent home wondering if it would be renewed the next month. Their pay did not include transport costs (often considerable in a country as big as Colombia). Since the protests began thousands of workers have not had their 1-month contracts renewed, and others have had their pay put on hold “until the dispute is over.” Meanwhile the companies are promising to hire more local labour, but it has been silent on the fate that awaits the workers that have participated in the strike.

Meanwhile striking workers complain that the police and the armed forces have been used to threaten and intimidate them, with police helicopters recently dropping stun grenades and tear gas onto them.

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