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Worker perspectives from Cerrejón coal mine

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13 April, 2021Last week, IndustriALL and the UK Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (LAPFF) co-hosted a webinar examining how labour practices at the Colombian coal mine Cerrejón are affecting workers. The massive open-pit coal mine is jointly owned by mining multinationals Anglo American, BHP and Glencore.

Two leaders from IndustriALL affiliate Sintracarbon discussed Cerrejón’s recent dismissals of some 90 workers without just cause or consultation; its failure to engage meaningfully with local communities and workers about an eventual Just Transition at the mine; and gender discrimination.

In 2020, Cerrejón and Sintracarbon concluded a collective agreement following an unprecedented 90-day strike. Shortly afterwards, Cerrejón imposed a punishing shift change, called the Death Shift, reneging on its commitment to discuss it with workers. The shift is particularly dangerous in terms of Covid-19 as it requires workers to keep working even if they fall ill.

“Cerrejón and its joint venture partners need to take worker rights seriously. Labour conflicts are harmful to workers, and they are also damaging to companies and investors. Last year’s strike paralyzed production and prevented five million tons of coal from reaching international markets. In addition, we’re worried that worker fatigue will lead to an increase in accidents, and that low morale will affect productivity,”

said Glen Mpufane, IndustriALL’s mining director.

Sintracarbon president Igor Kareld Díaz said that for two years, the company had claimed it was going through difficult times and was not sustainable due to falling coal prices. The workers and the union want to work with Cerrejón to make it sustainable in the long term, and benefit workers and local communities alike. But the company refuses to engage with the union or even provide information about the mine’s financial situation.

Kareld Díaz also noted that workers who were community leaders were specifically targeted by Cerrejón for dismissal in the mass layoffs following the strike of 2020. Although the union has since managed to get four workers reinstated by going through the courts, this is not an efficient way to address the problem of unfair dismissals.

“As difficult it is for the union to enter into dialogue with Cerrejón, it is even harder for communities to discuss their concerns about the mine’s negative impacts. If the company has sustainability problems, we the workers want to be part of the solution,”

said Igor Diaz.

Cerrejón’s lease ends in 2033, and in order to represent the concerns of both workers and the community, Sintracarbon has proposed a public forum to discuss a Just Transition, with both social and environmental justice in the remaining twelve years of the mine’s life, as well preventing that the site becomes a poison chalice for the community after its closure.

These requests have led to threats to both labour and community activists, and the Colombian justice system does not provide adequate protection.

Cerrejón’s policy on gender equality at the mine by 2025 is not realistic, as women make up less than 10 per cent of the workforce, according to union leader and branch health secretary Hidanora Pérez.

Women are overrepresented among the dismissed workers. Those fired include women with permanent contracts, women who are pregnant or have small children, and some women explicitly recognized for their productivity, all of which reduces the incentive for women to train to work at the mine. In addition, female workers who complain about problems have been punished by being moved to other areas. In effect, women’s voices are being silenced, and those willing to speak up are being weeded out. And the new shift system makes it much harder for women to maintain employment.

“We’ve already had our land taken over by the mine, we work for them, we produce profits for them, why are our labor rights not taken into account? How can it be that the company has closed down discussion with the communities?”

asked Hidanora Pérez.

The workers’ message to investors was clear:

  • Tell BHP, Glencore and Anglo American to engage in meaningful industrial relations to deal with Cerrejón’s economic issues
  • Make sure the gender policies are put into practice
  • And don’t just walk away from Cerrejón; use your influence to secure a Just Transition for workers and communities

LAPFF protects the pension funds of local government employees across the UK by promoting high standards of corporate responsibility. Its members are shareholders in Anglo American, BHP and Glencore.