Thursday, 12 June 2008

Colombian palm oil workers still on strike

Palm oil workers from the Yarima district of Santander state have been on strike now for nearly two months. Two weeks ago their road blockade was violently cleared by riot police firing rubber bullets and using a water cannon, leaving 15 injured. The USO (Union Sindical Obrera de la Union de la Industria del Petroleo - Oil Workers Union) have been representing the workers in negotiations in the state capital, Bucaramanga.
Here is a translation of a communique from the Yarima community negotiating committee on June 6th:

'On Saturday 31st May, after 41days since stopping work and the refusal of the palm oil industry to set up negotiations to resolve the social and labour conflict, finally concrete negotiations were agreed, with the municipal council of San Vicente de Chucuri and PDPMM (Programme for Development and Peace in the Magdelena Media) acting as guarantors. However the negotiations have been bogged down by the repeated refusal of the employers' commission to recognise the legitimacy of the workers' negotiating committee appointed by the community and their lack of will to come to an agreement beneficial to both parties. Amongst other issues the following stand out:

  • the palm industry until now has been granting the minimum guarantees to the negotiating commission in terms of accommodation, transport and food - it has complied with offers made to the community before the start of the current phase of the process.
  • the employers' negotiating commission has refused to sign any document containing a timetable, as requested by the social protection ministry, the people's defender, and the church. There is also no mention of any will to resolve the conflict in the shortest time possible with the relevant guarantees.
  • the employers' negotiating commission has repeatedly insisted on dividing our commission by dealing with the themes individually, thus seeking to weaken us, and has constantly demanded that in order to make progress we have to call off the strike, which we have vehemently rejected as none of their proposals are serious.
  • the employers have shown a lack of will in fulfilling the committment made on May 31st to set up a negotiating table on June 6th to discuss this social conflict in the Santander State Government, in the presence of the following: the Governor, the mayor of San Vicente de Chucuri, palm oil companies, Ecopetrol, the company Centromin and the PDPMM, amongst others.
  • we denounce the constant harrassment we have been subject to from armed people in plain clothes, which has forced us to request security from the Secretary of the State Government.
  • we repeat that this process is colective involving the whole of the Yarima community, therefore any agreement should encompass all the workers, without exception.
  • there have been no agreements on the key issues, only on side issues, which don't offer any kind of guarantees to the Yarima community.
The commission appointed by the community has been serious and responsible in its committment to Yarima, we won't submit to any undue pressures with the aim of destroying the community, we have shown a willingness and commitment to negotiate, but the employers' commission has used delaying tactics to fail to reach agreement. We hold the palm industry responsible for worsening the conflict, and if negotiations fail it wil be because of a lack of will on their part. This Yarima commission came to Bucaramanga to negotiate our demands, but has come up against an employers' commission which has made no sincere efforts to resolve this social and labour conflict.'

This conflict has featured in the national press, and last week agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias made comments putting the whole community at risk: 'Yarima disrict has been hijacked by anarchy, by a trade union that has links with the guerilla, and the government knows what the true aims are of those promoting a farmers' movement in the area'.
Yarima district is an important agroindustrial area with 7,000 hectares of palm, 15,000 of cocoa, 3,000 of rubber, as well as cattle ranches and coal mines. It is a rich area with companies raking in profits, but the population lives in poverty with abysmal working conditions and a lack of access to health and education.

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