“We earn $30,000 (£9), this is what we were paid in 2004. Everything has gone up in price. Our salary is the only thing that hasn't increased. After paying food and bills we are left with nothing in the pocket while BP earms millions from Casanare oil. Us poor people need respect too as we are humans, just the same as rich people. And a dignified salary is part of this respect.”
One week ago they were forced to take the decision to go on strike after BP cancelled yet another meeting to discuss the demands. They are tired of being made fun of and walked all over for twenty years.
On Monday 15th February, the notorious Colombian riot police, ESMAD, arrived and without any warning they violently attacked the strikers and community members using tear gas, their batons and shields.
Wilson, a young local commited councillor, told me how ESMADs response to his efforts to calm the situation down through attempting dialogue, was to be pushed to the ground and giving a kicking. He is now being sued by ESMAD for supposedly attacking the police.
Five days later, with wounds visible on many present, worker and community leaders spend the day in a meeting with a delegation of government representatives. BP did not arrive despite promising to attend. The government representatives spent the morning listening to the grievances of the communities and workers who for the first time in 20 years of BP operating in the oil are speaking out clearly, saying enough, this situiation has to change.
The government represenatives spent the afternoon trying to confince the workers to lift the strike so that the dialogue could continue calmly. The workers responded saying that they have shown good will repeatedly and BP has refused to listen to them, even refused to accept this as a labour conflict.
“We will lift the strike when BP sits down to negotiate with us and we reach a just agreement”
The workers, with their strong sense of belonging to the region, are demanding that BP discusses not just labour issues but also environmental and social investment issues. They are very worried by the contamination of the streams and rivers, and feel totally abused by the lack of social investment in the area by BP.
It is the first time that workers for the BP have managed to organise themselves in a union. In the late 1990’s, B.P. was exposed by the British media for complicity in human rights abuses. The company had contracted the 16th Brigade of the Colombian army to protect its oilfields, despite the Brigade’s dire human rights record, which includes murder, “disappearances”, torture, rape and the forced displacement of communities. B.P. also admitted to having employed the private security company Defence Systems Limited to provide counter-insurgency training to Colombian police and army units charged with the protection of B.P’s installations. This training was described as “lethal” by a DSL employee and included the surveillance and intimidation of peasant leaders who were mounting protests against BP’s ecological damage, denial of labour rights and lack of social.
“As is common in our country, the presence of these economic projects are accompanied by state violence and a strong paramilitary presence.” USO Urgent Action (USO is the national oil workers union)
In Casanare, a department with a population of around 500,000 habitants, there have been 9900 selected killings, and 2600 people disappeared between 2000 and 2007 according to COS-PACC, a human rights NGO.
“We would wake up wondering who would be killed today. Things aren't as bad now but there has already been people on motorbikes without license plates watching us for hours at the picket line. We are worried. I really hope that there doesn't need to be a murder for BP to negotiate” Dina, local community member.
The USO holds BP and the Colombian State responsible for any possible human rights violations and that could occur. The situation is also urgent as hundreds of workers have not received their salary for a month now.
They are asking for national and international support; both solidarity actions and actions to pressure the company to sit down and negotiate with the union.
The Colombia Solidarity Campaign have called for an emergency picket of the BP HQ, London, Friday 26th February. The workers assembly gave a big cheer when I passed on this news and one women took a copy of the email to go door to door showing people how people were supporting the strike and encouraging all in the village to support the strike too.
Please send letters of support to email@example.com and a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org