Colombia’s oil industry is preparing a national strike on March 19 after oil workers union USO called for workers to suspend work for 24 hours in an attempt to curb the cutting of jobs.
The strike was announced Tuesday outside the doors of the Barrancabermeja refinery by Secretary of Agragrian Affairs of the National Board of the USO, Moises Baron.
The USO, Colombia’s main oil workers’ union, voted last Wednesday to stage an indefinite strike unless negotiations with the government resulted in an agreement before March 26.
The union are criticising the “poor management of oil policy” by the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, which has led to the slashing of thousands of jobs.
Such an agreement between the USO and the government has failed to be reached thus far and so a preliminary 24-hour strike will go ahead on January 19.
Baron informed that once the strike of March 19 is completed, the special committee elected by the board of the USO will evaluate if the indefinite strike is to materialize.
The protest will include employees of state-run Ecopetrol, Colombia’s largest oil producer, as well as other members of the oil sector across the country.
The union announced March 5 the necessity to strike due to the recent axing of thousands of jobs within the industry. This is because of a 50 percent drop in oil prices since mid 2014.
“After evaluating Tuesday’s meeting with the government and all of the decisions that they have taken, due to the poor management of oil policy by the government of Juan Manuel Santos, the union has determined, by mandate of the National Assembly of Delegates, to go on strike,” announced President of the USO Edwin Castaño on Thursday.
“The real employment slaughter is being seen in the oil sector, where today more than 10,000 workers remain out of employment,” said Castaño.
He added that Ecopetrol has cancelled the contracts of 557 workers in the ICP, approximately 400 in Tibu (North of Santander), and more than 100 in both Cantagallo (Bolivar) and Casabe. The oil producer has also imposed a hiring freeze.
“Therefore, we must give a response as a trade union,” Castaño stated.
Colombian Labor Minister, Luis Eduardo Garzon, warned that the strike “would be suicide given the current conditions”.
“If there is a strike, not only will it affect Ecopetrol and employment, but also oil production in the country, which finances important government social programs,” alerted Garzon in response to the strike-warning last week.
However, Ecopetrol has prepared a contingency workforce to maintain production and output of oil during the protest, according to an official.
“Ecopetrol has a contingency plan to carry out all activities including production in the fields and running the refinery at Barrancabermeja,” said the Ecopetrol official who said he was not authorized to be named in press reports.
He said that non-unionized employees have been previously qualified in additional job functions, to ensure the flow of oil production is not disrupted during the unpredictable labor disputes.
Strike action at Ecopetrol is deemed illegal under Colombian legislation because the company’s oil production is considered a crucial service. After a month-long strike undertaken in 2004, an excess of 200 employees were dismissed. Normal production was maintained during this time.
“[Those striking] will be called back to their jobs and if they don’t return, there will be sanctions that can lead to dismissals,” the Ecopetrol source said.
Ecopetrol usually employs approximately 25,000 staff members indirectly, to work on projects overseen by third-party contractors. These are the particular jobs under threat after the company slashed its 2015 investment budget by 26 percent from last year.
These jobs typically involve construction or maintenance, and are unlikely to affect Colombia as Latin America’s fourth largest oil producer in the short term.
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