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Updated: 18.12.2012 15:51
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Die Ölarbeitergewerkschaft USO plädiert vor der Internationalen Arbeitsorganisation

Mit einer Dokumentation über die Geschichte der USO seit 1923, über die Repression insbesondere der letzten 20 Jahre und der Auseinandersetzung um die "Legalität" des Ölarbeiterstreiks 2004 geht die USO vor den Ausschuss für Gewerkschaftsrechte der IAO. Die (englische) Dokumentation "Violations of trade union rights in the state oil sector in COLOMBIA" vom 1.Juni 2005.

Violations of trade union rights in the state oil sector in COLOMBIA

The parties involved

- In 1923, the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO), an oil industry trade union, was created. The USO is an affiliate of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) and currently has 5,042 oil sector workers among its members.

- In the wale of a strike staged by the USO in 1948, Law 165, passed the same year, required the reversion of the oil fields and facilities under concession contracts and the Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos (ECOPETROL) was created as a state industrial and trading company.

- The USO and ECOPETROL, as a result of a series of negotiating sessions, reached a collective agreement covering benefits and working conditions for the company’s employees.

The persistent climate of violence

Starting in 1987 the USO has been the victim of the following serious human rights violations that undermine the free exercise of trade union activities:

- 102 members of the organization have been murdered

- 34 have been injured

- 4 have been abducted

- 10 have been exiled outside Colombia

- 400 have been displaced within Colombia

- 31 have been put on trial for trade union activities and remanded in custody for periods ranging from 1 to 7 years

- 60 are under criminal proceedings

- 50 attacks have been perpetrated, without physical harm being done, on workers and their families.

Given this context, it has been extremely difficult for USO to carry out freely and in a meaningful way its activities and to draw up and pursue its action programme, which features the following points:

- The maintenance of labour and collective guarantees

- The defence of the company’s status as a state enterprise and the prevention of its privatization. All of the above is in line with the section on Colombia of Report III (Part 1A) of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations of the ILO.

The 2004 USO strike at ECOPETROL


In November 2002, negotiations got under way with ECOPETROL. On 25 March 2003, under resolution number 000385, the Social Protection Ministry decreed the creation of a compulsory arbitration tribunal to settle the dispute at ECOPETROL. On 9 December 2003, the arbitration tribunal handed down its decision. The USO, in disagreement, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Colombia. On 31 March 2004, the Court confirmed the new working conditions and returned the arbitration decision to the arbitration tribunal to settle a number of other issues. During the labour dispute, the company and the Colombian government carried out the following actions designed to undermine trade union support and deal a heavy blow to the trade union’s activities and stability:

- On June 26, 2003, under an eviction order relating to the company’s facilities and its militarization, the national government issued decree 1760 splitting the company up.

- ECOPETROL introduced a compulsory “Improvement and Skills Programme” for trade union activists and leaders, which constitutes a violation of human dignity. The strike declaration

On 22 April 2004, the workers gathered together and decided to declare a strike in protest at the government’s economic and social policy and, more specifically:

- to protest at the lack of direct talks with the government for a collective agreement on working conditions;

- to defend the company’s status as a state enterprise

- to guarantee trade union rights and the right to life.Violation of the right to strike, the freedom of association and collective bargaining

The following points were included in a complaint (cases 1787 and 2355) submitted to the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association, Collective Bargaining, and Industrial Relations in May 2004 by the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas in representation of the USO.

1. Illegal strike

Also on 22 April, the Social Protection Ministry, through resolution 1116, declared the strike called by the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) to be illegal because it affected an essential public service. However, the USO confirmed that: the industrial sector was not paralyzed, production was not interrupted, fuel supply was not interrupted.

Consequently, the strike at ECOPETROL never endangered the life, safety or health of persons in any sector of the population (the Commission’s definition of “an essential service”).

The Colombian government’s declaration that the strike was illegal does not comply with case law of the Colombian Constitutional Court nor the repeated recommendations from the International Labour Organization (ILO) regarding this matter.

According to the Colombian Constitutional Court, if the state is the employer, it is contrary to the principle of good faith in compliance with international commitments for a governmental body to qualify a strike as illegal, “because in that way the workers are deprived of a guarantee - that of having access to a third and impartial party that can take a decision if the dispute between them and their employer concerning the legality of the strike cannot be settled by the parties”.

For its part, the Commission of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations of the ILO recommended to the Colombian government that “the declaration of the strike’s illegality should not be the task of the Labour Ministry (renamed the Social Protection Ministry), but rather a judicial authority or an independent authority.” The Commission of Experts was emphatic in calling on the government to “take measures to repeal or amend” the legal provisions authorizing the Ministry to make such declarations.

The power of the government to be both judge and interested party in declaring a strike to be illegal, in cases involving state bodies, is a serious attack on trade union freedom that leaves trade union members defenceless.

2. Dismissal and/or sanctions imposed on trade unionists

ECOPETROL dismissed 247 trade unionists. Colombian law, in article 450 of the Labour Code, allows the authorities to dismiss trade union leaders who take part in a strike that has been declared illegal, in breach of international regulations.

On 26 May 2004, an agreement was signed between ECOPETROL, the government and the USO, with the mediation of the Church and the Barrancabermeja municipal council, stipulating that a voluntary arbitration tribunal shall be created to come to a legal decision as to whether the labour contract of the persons dismissed should be suspended.

The voluntary tribunal ordered the reinstatement of the 106 workers, arguing that their right to defence, due process and presumption of innocence had been violated during the disciplinary procedure.

On 4 February 2005, ECOPETROL submitted a petition requesting that the arbitration decision be overturned, but the tribunal refused the petition because it considered it to be unfounded.

ECOPETROL has reinstated the 106 dismissed workers. At the same time ECOPETROL initiated new proceedings under Law 734, ignoring the principle nom bis in idem (no one can be judged twice for the same offence). In addition, ECOPETROL has initiated more than 1,491 disciplinary procedures in a move to carry out mass dismissals. Requests

USO asked the Committee on the application of standards during the 93rd International Labour Conference of 2005 to underscore the following points in its conclusions:

- the legality of the 2004 strike at ECOPETROL

- to urge specific measures by the Colombian government in order to:

- guarantee the life and safety of trade unionists

- put an end to practices that are contrary to trade union rights and freedoms, in particular the power of employers to dismiss workers after declaring a strike movement to be illegal

- reform Colombian labour law in order to eliminate, within a reasonable time period and under the supervision of the ILO’s Governing Body or the body the latter designates, all regulations that give rise to anti-trade union measures and practices.

Jorge Gamboa Caballero, President of Unión Sindical Obrera (USO)

Geneva, June 2005

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