Behind the Oil Workers’ Strike in Colombia

Last week, in perhaps the largest recent strike in Colombia, 10,000 workers walked out of several multinational oil companies in the Department of Meta. The strikes came in response to recent layoffs and the dismal working conditions in Meta, which over the last few years has become the epicenter of the country’s oil production.

Nazih Richani 7/25/2011

228Striking Oil Workers. (EFE/Luis Alfredo Zapata)Last week, in perhaps the largest recent strike in Colombia, 10,000 workers walked out of several multinational oil companies in the Department of Meta. The strikes came after Montajes J.M.—a subcontractor for the Spanish corporation CEPSA—fired 1,100. The workers responded in protest against the layoffs and the dismal working conditions in most companies in Meta including Pacific Rubiales. It is notewothy that Meta has become the epicenter of the country’s oil production.

Workers targeted the Canadian-based Pacific Rubiales, which has surpassed both BP and OXY to become the top oil company in Colombia, and the majority state-owned Ecopetrol. While 80% of Ecopetrol assets are owned by the Colombian state, the company often partners with Pacific Rubiales and has a share of 67% of the production from the Rubiales wells.

This strike brings to the forefront two main issues that are important to address. One is in regards to the precarious working conditions of oil workers and the type of contracts that govern the multinational corporations, their subcontractors, as well as Ecopetrol. The second is the wider socioeconomic implications of what this oil boom is doing to the Department of Meta.

Regarding the working conditions the following is noteworthy:

-Workers are forced to work more than 18 hours a day—well above the maximum of 40 hours a week.

-Workers work between 35 to 40 continuous days without any days off.

-There is widespread discrimination in wages.

-Some workers are not paid salaries during the three-month probationary period that they must work when they begin the job.

-Workers are denied access to social security and pensions programs even after the lapse of the three-month probationary period.

-The conditions of the worker’s living quarters are dismal—similar, even, to those that prevailed in the 19th century during the early period of the Industrial Revolution. These dismal living conditions at least partially led to the strike. Many of these workers are also migrants from other distant regions of Colombia.

It is important to note that while Pacific Rubiales has only 1,500 workers on its official payroll, its 600 subcontactors—like Montajes J.M.—employ 12,000 workers. This brings me to the second related issue—the socioeconomic implications of such a sudden boom on the Department of Meta. If the historical experiences of the oil departments of Casanare and Arauca are of any help for us to better understand what is happening or is expected to happen in Meta, one may consider the following:

-Local economies are being disrupted by a sudden influx of petrodollars, which increases the local prices of commodities, real estate, rents, and land values. All of this is detrimental to the agrarian economy, and particularly the small and subsistence peasant economy, which a good portion of this department’s population depends on. This same process was also observed in Arauca and Casanare.

-There has been a huge influx of migrant workers—most of which are temporary and part timers (recruited by the subcontractors)—with no job security and benefits creating all the elements of a social explosion. Last week’s strike and the confrontations that took place in Puerto Gaitán (in the Department of Meta) is only a preamble to a wider and more violent confrontation with the state.

-In 2001, Puerto Gaitán, where the oil exploitation of Pacific Rubiales is concentrated, had a population of only 18,000. Over the last ten years it has doubled to 36,000. Migrant workers with no job security or benefits account for most of the population increase. Arauca and Casanare witnessed similar demographic booms with all of their socially destabilizing effects that often resulted in violence, due to the lack of conflict resolution channels and the extreme levels of class exploitation.

-Until recently, Meta’s economy depended on extensive cattle ranching, rice production, African Palm oil, as well as the peasant economy. These sectors have been negatively affected by the oil boom, which has raised the price of land, fertilizers, machines, and other imported commodities. The cheapest commodity continues to be labour power due to a stronger supply of labor and a lack of unionization. This strike may usher in the beginning of a larger labor struggle to increase salaries to at least match the other price increases.

I tried here to sketch some undercurrents of the Meta’s strike, drawing parallels with Arauca and Casanare, all of which reveal a more encompassing subtext: Colombia is still rooted in an economic model that instead of bringing development, yields insecurity, instability, and most importantly generates deplorable working conditions for the masses. The latter is clear in Puerto Gaitán, as well as in many other places that I will discuss in future blogs. Stay tuned.


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