One of the principle projects behind Colombia’s push for greater energy independence was put on hold Friday, when more than 10,000 construction workers at the Cartagena Oil Refinery (REFICAR) launched an indefinite labor strike.
The strike came amid a stall in ongoing negotiations between workers from Colombia’s national oil workers union (USO) and officials of the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company (CB&I), the United States-based multinational firm hired to expand REFICAR’s production capacities. But ECOPETROL, the state-owned energy conglomerate that owns the refinery, said only the expansion efforts will be affected, and that refining operations will continue as normal.
According to a USO press release, 6,578 out of 7,000 union workers voted in favor of the strike, which puts some 12,000 workers overall on indefinite work stoppage.
Formal labor negotiations began weeks ago, centering around wage increases for workers, who say they are underpaid in relation to industry standards, and labor organizing rights, which workers claim have been actively undermined by the company.
CM&I has indicated it is willing to increase salaries by 23 percent in some cases, and double investments in certain benefits packages. But the union maintains it is entitled to scaled wage hikes of up to 43 percent, and talks did not make sufficient progress during the delineated negotiation period to avoid the zero hour strike deadline.
The strike, which began officially at 10am on Friday, was certified by the Minister and vice-Minister of Labor, who oversaw negotiations between the union and officials from CM&I, ECOPETROL and the REFICAR plant, and confirmed that workers adhered to all relavant legal guidelines throughout the strike process.
Currently, REFICAR refines 80,000 barrels of crude oil annually. The $6.47 billion CB&I project would grow that figure to 165,000 barrels by 2015, part of ECOPETROL’s wider initiative to increase its annual nationwide production to 650,000 barrels over the next two years.
Oil prices have been a hotly contested topic in Colombia, which boasts some of the highest energy exports in Latin America, and indeed, the world, but is forced to import much of its own consumption needs, due to a lack of refining infrastructure. Several recent nationwide labor strikes have focused on internal energy prices, which rank among the highest combustible prices in the region and render various sectors of the economy financially insolvent.
The strike is the first to hit Colombia’s oil industry in over nine years, and comes just one week after a temporary resolution to 52 days of work stoppages at Colombia’s second-largest coal exporter.
- USO Press Release
- Workers expanding Colombia Cartagena oil refinery go on strike (Business Recorder)
- Una huelga amplifica la ampliacion de la refineria colombiana Reficar (Notimerica.com, via Reuters)