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Colombian workers unite to build a stronger union

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22 January, 2013Colombian IndustriALL affiliate Sintracarbón is currently putting forward equal treatment for precarious workers as a key demand in its negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with Carbones del Cerrejón, the world’s largest open-pit set of coal mines.

The demand calls for sub-contracted workers to receive the same treatment and salaries as directly employed workers performing the same tasks at the company, a joint venture of three multinational mining conglomerates, BHP Billiton, Xstrata and AngloAmerican. In 2012, 6,000 out of a total of 11,000 workers at Cerrejón were precariously employed by contractors.

Sintracarbón has been organizing precarious workers at Carbones del Cerrejón since 2010. Organizing contract workers had become a necessity for the leadership of the union since contract workers had come to represent the majority of the workforce but had considerably lower standards of employment and no collective agreements.

The first attempts by the union to organize these workers failed. In 2010, Sintracarbón supported fixed term workers of the company that provides transportation to the mine workers, SOTRANS, to create a company-based trade union, SINTRANS. SINTRANS leaders were rapidly subjected to harassment and intimidation by management, which did not renew the contract of 30 members of the trade union and succeeded in obtaining the dissolution of SINTRANS after several months.  Sintrachaneme, another contractor company-based trade union, faced a similar strategy of harassment.

At this point Sintracarbón decided to change strategy and its congress voted to change the organization’s statutes to allow the inclusion of outsourced workers. After a labour conflict, Sintracarbón obtained a clause in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement with Carbones del Cerrejón expressing management’s commitment to ensuring respect for the unionization of all workers, including subcontracted workers. This clause has given the union good leverage, enabling it to denounce a breach of the collective agreement and the non-validity of the relationship between the user undertaking and the contractor whenever management of subcontractors denies trade union rights to their workers. To date, Sintracarbón has succeeded in signing 5 collective bargaining agreements with subcontractors.

Working conditions of the precarious workers have substantially improved. The common practice of hiring staff for six-month periods has been abolished by the subcontracting companies which are now required to hire their employees for the duration of their contracts with Carbones del Cerrejón.

One of the main lessons learned by Sintracarbón is that it is more effective to bring precarious workers into the regular union structures than to create separate structures.  Contract workers had very little experience in negotiating, despite the support and training providing by Sintracarbón, and, with more than 300 subcontractors providing services to Carbones del Cerrejón, the creation of company-based trade unions would have critically fragmented their bargaining power.

Sintracarbón activists operate under the notoriously violent anti-union environment in Colombia. On 6, 7 and 8 January 2013, Sintracarbón’s President and Treasurer received telephone calls at their homes delivering death threats to them and their families because of their trade union activities.

Today, Sintracarbón has 4,500 members, of which 2,000 are contract workers. Belonging to the same trade union has brought more unity and solidarity among the workers. The international support to Sintracarbón’s fight has been a determining factor behind these results and IndustriALL continues to closely monitor the continuing negotiations with Carbones del Cerrejón.