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ICEM Takes Public the Intimidation of Sintracarbon Leaders in Colombia

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15 August, 2005ICEM News release No. 51/2004

Members of the European Parliament joined ICEM in condemning death threats and extortion attempts by members of paramilitary groups in Colombia against bargaining committee members of Sindicato Nacional de los Trabeajores de la Industria del Carbon (Sintracarbon), an affiliate of the 20-million-member ICEM.

Press conference at European Parliament, from left,
ICEM's Fred Higgs and MEPs Proinsias De Rossa and Stephen Hughes

At a news conference today at the Parliament, ICEM General Secretary Fred Higgs was joined by Proinsias De Rossa MEP and Stephen Hughes MEP. Mr. De Rossa and Mr. Hughes are senior members of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, which has pledged its full support to efforts to draw global attention to the threats and extortion attempts. The Socialist Group of the Parliament numbers 202 members.

“We are here to register a global voice in condemnation of the despicable intimidation of trade union leaders in Colombia by these lawless forces,” said Higgs. “We also call on the companies involved and the Colombian government to publicly denounce these acts so that trade unionists are free and unencumbered to represent the best interests of workers at this enterprise.”

Sintracarbon, a Colombian coal mining union representing workers at Carbones del Cerrejon, the country’s leading coal exporter, has been engaged in collective bargaining with the firm since 1 December. But in the weeks leading up to those negotiations, bargaining team members began receiving calls from unknown members of paramilitary groups demanding payments. The extortion calls also involved death threats on family members of Sintracarbon’s bargaining team.

Negotiations between the union and local management of the company located in Guajira Department of Colombia have proceeded smoothly with healthy and respectful dialogue occurring at the bargaining table. The coal mining and export firm is jointly owned by Anglo American Plc., BHP Billiton and Glencore International AG of Switzerland.

The MEPs are calling on European Union institutions and the multinational companies to condemn the unlawful acts. “These trade unionists have been engaged in constructive collective bargaining with their employer and should not now become pawns in the hands of extortionists,” said MEP Proinsias De Rossa said in a statement.

The ICEM yesterday took its concern to the three multinational mining companies, as well as to local management at Carbones del Cerrejon. In the separate letter to Dr. Alberto Calderon Zuleta, president of Carbones del Cerrejon, Higgs alerted him of ICEM’s intent to take the issue into the global arena and stated, “We feel Carbones del Cerrejon as a company has a strong moral responsibility as a matter of urgency to also public condemn such intimidation tactics.”

The ICEM letter added, “We also call on management at Carbones del Cerrejon to take every necessary step to protect the security and safety of Sintracarbon bargaining committee members, their families, and other leaders of our affiliated union.”

Higgs also wrote to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, stating, “Such threats and intimidation pose a serious impediment to fair, open and meaningful collective bargaining as recognized by civil society worldwide.” Sintracarbon has registered formal complaints on the matter with the government, but no action to date has been forthcoming.

The ICEM is hopeful that the mining concern in Colombia and its parent companies will condemn the threats and extortion attempts. In October, Carbones del Cerrejon was one of a group of Colombian companies which began a process with the Global Union Federation and its affiliates there that sets forth a formalized procedure over the next two years for full Social Dialogue on work and other issues with the affiliated unions, a process unique for Colombia.