Striking Workers Brutally Attacked by Colombian Police

News from Colombia | on: Sunday, 5 April 2009

Striking union members and local residents in the mining communities where their strike is centred have been subjected to brutal repression by Colombian riot police leaving several people badly injured. The strike, by workers employed by FENOCO, a subsidiary of mining multinationals Drummond and Glencore, has closed down a railway that the two multinationals use to transport coal from large inland mines that they own to the Caribbean Coast for export. A larger strike by around 9,000 mineworkers employed by Drummond following the death of a worker at their mine has now ended, though without the railway the mine cannot continue to function.

Striking FENOCO workers, who are represented by the SINTRAIME trade union, walked out on March 24th following FENOCO's refusal to recognise the union and negotiate for better working conditions. Over 350 of the 600 workers on the railway have established picket lines on the train tracks near the towns of Bosconio and Chiriguana, both in Cesar department, and Sevilla, Santa Marta and Fundacion in neighbouring Magdalena department.

On the morning of April 3rd riot police violently attacked those on strike and wounded several of those manning the picket lines. The worst attacks occurred in Bosconio where union activist Gustavo Garcia was left with facial deformations after being badly beaten and another worker, Wilfredo Cantillo, was beaten unconscious. Members of the local community who have given strong support to the strikers came to their aid but were also attacked by police including one incident in which a house wife and her young child were attacked. Officers also fired tear gas at the strikers, including one group who were near to a school, and a local pensioner was taken to hospital suffering from heart problems.

According to witnesses the police also slashed tires and broke the windows of cars that had brought the striking workers to the picket line and then showed reporters the vehicles as evidence of the violence being perpetrated by those on strike.

Last November SINTRAIME presented a petition to FENOCO asking for improved working conditions for those employed on the railway but the company refused to recognise or talk to the union. The union accuses the firm of ignoring basic trade union rights that are enshrined in both Colombian and international law and says that the Government, rather than forcing the company to respect the law, is taking the side of the employers. According to SINTRAIME spokesperson Felix Herrera, "Whilst the Ministry of Social Protection, which has the responsibility in a situation like this, refuses to get involved or order FENOCO to respect the law, the Ministry of Defence seems to have no misgivings about getting involved and has sent the security forces here to attack us."

In late March workers at Drummond's main Colombian mine, La Loma, went on strike for four days to protest the death of one of their colleagues. SINTRAMINERGETICA, which represents those working in the mining complex itself, accused the company of doing nothing to protect the lives of their employees and, as a result of the walkout, all production ceased. However, despite those workers returning to their jobs the coal produced at the mine can still not be transported anywhere causing huge losses for the company.

The SINTRAIME spokesman added, "Rather than fulfilling their legal responsibilities to recognise and negotiate with the union that the workers have chosen, Drummond and FENOCO seem to want to sit this out. They appear to prefer to lose money and business rather than collectively bargain with the workers."

See also: Strike Closes Down Multinational Coal Operations in Colombia

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