MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombia: Coal mining unions support Cerrejon community resistance

Published by MAC on 2013-03-05
Source:, IPS, statement

There has been massive support among local communities in Colombia for striking workers who have previously backed them in confronting the Cerrejon coal mining expansions.

The workers have rejected the company’s plan to divert the River Rancheria. 

Meanwhile, an armed attack on mine property has been condemned by both major mining unions, SINTRACARBON and FUNTRAENERGETICA.

To show support for the workers, see

Previous article on MAC: UK NGOs call for urgent action on Colombian mega-coal mine

See update below on the end of the strike

Terrorists attack Colombia's largest coal mine

Cecilia Jamasmie

25 February 2013

Colombia's main coal miner, Cerrejon, said Sunday that armed groups broke into the premises of a coal venture owned by BHP Billiton Ltd. and Anglo American, burning down several of the companies' trucks.

The violence comes as union leaders and company executives prepare to hold talks today with the hope of reaching consensus and end the walkout started in early February, which forced the company to freeze all its exports.

The strike is costing the consortium millions of dollars a as 100,000 metric tons of coal a day go unproduced.

The labour unrest is mostly about wage increases for 2013 and next year, but health-care plans are also on the table. Under Colombian law, if no deal is reached within 60 days the argument will go to an arbitration panel whose decision is final.

Last week Cerrejon declared force majeure on at least some cargoes, a move that removes it from any legal obligation to deliver coal it previously agreed to in a contract.

About 35 million tons of coal were extracted last year from the Cerrejon mine, and the consortium aims to extract 98 million tons this year.

Cerrejon has frequently been victim to attacks by terrorist groups like the FARC and ELN, which increasingly have changed their military strategy to violently disrupt the country's oil and mining industry.

Open Pit Miners Strike in Colombia

By Constanza Vieira

Inter-Press Service (IPS)

23 February 2013

BOGOTA - Two weeks into an indefinite strike called by workers at Cerrejón, one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world, the company has agreed to sit down again and negotiate with Colombia's National Union of Coal Industry Workers (Sintracarbón).

Negotiations, which had been broken off by Carbones del Cerrejón on Sunday, Feb. 17, are back on track with tentative meetings between company representatives and leaders of Sintracarbón, an affiliate of IndustriALL, a global trade union organisation that represents 50 million workers in a 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors.

Representatives of both sides met in the afternoon of Feb 22 to "discuss the methodology for resuming negotiations," Sintracarbón president Igor Díaz announced on Twitter.

The decision by Carbones del Cerrejón - a joint venture between the multinational corporations Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Xstrata - to return to the negotiating table was most likely influenced by a change in attitude on the part of the Colombian government, who stepped in to play a role as mediator in this conflict.

In a laconic text message late on Wednesday, Feb. 20, Labour Vice-Minister José Noé Ríos told IPS: "We're moving ahead. We're still looking for a way (to solve the conflict) and overcoming the mutual distrust" between the parties.

The following day, Ríos was able to bring two representatives from both sides together to discuss the conditions for reopening negotiations.

A leader of the governing Liberal Party and former peace commissioner, Ríos is an experienced negotiator and in this opportunity he was called on to mediate by Sintracarbón.

Nobody, however, can accuse the vice-minister of "helping" the union, a Sintracarbón advisor told IPS. The source spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity and not as an official spokesperson for the union.

All things considered, after a week of efforts, Ríos' mediation seems to be yielding results.

Another factor that probably played a role in the company's change of heart was a social protest demanding a resumption of negotiations, staged on Feb. 21 in the northeastern department of La Guajira, whose economy revolves around the Cerrejón pit and its 9,870 workers.

The protest was initially called by local merchants as a measure apparently against the union, but it was taken up by the population who turned it around. And not just because the demand for dialogue coincides with Sintracarbón's position.

Carbones del Cerrejón - and with it Guajira politicians and the government - came out of the civic strike looking badly in the eyes of the public, according to the union advisor interviewed by IPS.

During the strike, a usually silent population demonstrated loudly in front of closed stores and businesses, protesting the lack of a healthcare system in La Guajira and the missing royalties paid by Cerrejón to the government, allegedly misappropriated by corrupt local politicians.

Merchants and business operators also decried the environmental damage and health problems caused by coal mining and criticised the scarce development of La Guajira.

The company operates in the area since 1983, mining high-quality thermal coal, but only 10 percent of its purchases and contracts are conducted in Colombia, and less than one percent in La Guajira, the country's fifth poorest department.

Carbones del Cerrejón established four foundations, with different purposes: strengthening government and accountability in La Guajira; promoting the construction of aqueducts and sanitation works; expanding micro-businesses; and fostering the sustainable development of the Wayuu indigenous people, who represent 42 percent of the Guajira population.

These foundations are financed with the company's "tax deductions", Álvaro Pardo, head of the extractive economy analysis centre Colombia Punto Medio, told IPS, and "the work they do has little impact, as is evident from the unsatisfied basic needs index and the alcoholism and illiteracy rates" in La Guajira.

According to his calculations, the almost five million dollars provided by Cerrejón from 1982 to 2002 in compensation to the Wayuu communities, are the equivalent of two and a half days of the company's coal production.

The Red por la Justicia Tributaria en Colombia, an organisation of Colombian academics and activists who advocate for a fair tax system, mining companies deduct royalties and manipulate prices to lower the sums they are required to pay the government.

The company's willingness to find a prompt solution seemed in doubt on Feb. 19 when Carbones del Cerrejón's marketer, Coal Marketing Company (CMC), which exports 90,000 tonnes of coal per day, declared "force majeure" to get out of paying daily fines for not meeting supply contracts.

CMC had 15 shipments scheduled for Turkey and Europe between Feb. 7 -when Sintracarbón called the strike- and Feb. 18.

Force majeure can be invoked in extreme situations, such as natural disasters and strikes. On its website's home page CMC proudly, and somewhat belatedly, announces: "We have never declared Force Majeure."

Union records show that from 1986 to date Carbones del Cerrejón and Sintracarbón signed 12 collective bargaining agreements. This is the first work stoppage in the mine in 18 years.

In September 1995, nine workers were fired after a five-day strike called to protest against the quality of the food served by the company's canteen.

In 1996, Gustavo Palmezano, a unionist who had participated in another Sintracarbón protest against two layoffs, was murdered. Half of the trade unionists murdered in the world over the last four decades were Colombian.

Díaz and another Sintracarbón negotiator have received repeated threats against them and their families since the list of demands was submitted in late November.

Carbones del Cerrejón condemned the threats, backed Sintracarbón when it reported them to the police, and urged the government to grant adequate protection to the unionists and their families.

According to data from Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, 30.3 percent of the world's energy today comes from coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, whose gas emissions are a leading source of global warming.

With coasts on two oceans and very vulnerable to climate change, Colombia is the world's fifth coal exporter.

Although in 2011, global coal consumption was up 5.4 percent from 2010, as per information from British Petroleum's Statistical Review of World Energy, other power sources also increased, pushing international coal prices down.

The 2010-2014 National Development Plan projected an annual production of 124 million tonnes, at prices higher than today's.

In 2012, 89.2 million tonnes of coal were extracted in Colombia, according to data from the Ministry of Mining and Energy.

In its conflict with Sintracarbón, Carbones del Cerrejón has claimed that prices have dropped 35 percent in the last two years.

The illusion of a development driven by the "mining locomotive", as President Juan Manuel Santos likes to call it, crashes head on with the government's weak enforcement of what are already lax regulations.

More than 90 percent of Colombia's coal comes from fields mined by foreign companies. Carbones del Cerrejón is the single largest producer, with 38 percent.

The company's operations extend over 800 square kilometres in the Guajira peninsula, bordering with Venezuela. It has its own railway lines running through the isthmus to Puerto Bolívar, a private port on the Caribbean sea which is used exclusively by Carbones del Cerrejón and CMC.

The company reported that in 2012 it exported five percent of global coal production: 32.8 million tonnes. This volume determines the amount of royalties the company must pay the government for extracting non-renewable resources. But the government does not control the volumes actually exported by large mining companies.

Sintracarbón is asking for an eight percent raise in wages - most Colombian workers received a four percent increase in average - and the company is offering five percent.

Carbones del Cerrejón says it agreed to a raise that doubles last year's inflation and a bonus of 7,250 for each worker, in addition to "maintaining and improving all the benefits enjoyed by workers."

While the company's machinery, technology and productivity are on a par with U.S. and European companies, Cerrejón miners are paid five times less than their peers in the North, according to Colombia Punto Medio and other sources.

"Prices have dropped, but the enormous profits of the mining companies have not shrunk. They're selling coal at about 60 dollars a tonne, but in 2001-2002 coal was 35 dollars a tonne and it was still profitable," Pardo said.

The vice-president of Sintracarbón, Jairo Quiroz, believes Carbones del Cerrejón is trying to bring down the cost of production per tonne by cutting labour costs.

"That's what they're aiming for in this negotiation. Which is why they're putting up less economic resources to respond to the workers' list of demands," Quiroz told IPS

SINTRACARBON Obliged to Decree the Beginning of the Strike Against Carbones del Cerrejon Ltd.

7 February 2013

The National Union of Workers of the Coal Industry (SINTRACARBON) Press Release

(Translated by John I. Laun, a Colombia Solidarity Network Volunteer Translator)

Original in Spanish:ón,-obligado-a-decretar-la-hora-cero-de-la-huelga-en-carbones-del-cerrejón.html

Riohacha - For the first time in 22 years SINTRACARBON finds itself required to stop mining work in the Cerrejon mine, which is operated by Carbones del Cerrejon Ltd, the company which has the concession for mining Colombian coal in the Department of La Guajira.

Since last November 29, when the union delivered a set of requests to the company, this union organization has sought to have Carbones del Cerrejon, which is owned by the multinationals Xstrata - Glencore, Anglo American and BHP Billiton, recognize the justice, equity and legitimacy of the union's proposal on the topics of health and professional risks, dignity of their collaborators, equal treatment for third party workers, protection of the environment of La Guajira and respect for the communities of the region.

In the intense, direct negotiations, concerning which the union supplied information permanently to the workers, the communications media and public opinion, the negotiating committee of the union sought to have the company recognize the conditions of the 700 workers who suffer irreversible diseases as a consequence of their work. We also ask the Company to renounce the legal battles with which it sought to avoid recognizing the work - related illnesses of coal mining . In addition, we call attention to the inappropriate vehicles which the Company uses for transporting the workers who, after working 12 hour shifts, have to travel in urban buses slightly modified as interstate buses.Up to now Carbones del Cerrejon Ltd has refused to discuss and recognize these Constitutional rights of their collaborators.

We workers also have encountered the resistence of the Company to respect the guarantees which the law gives us to choose the health service with which we wish to affiliate. At the present time we are required to receive the poor attention of COOMEVA, which has not invested in the health infrastructure where it provides services, nor offered respectable contracts with hospitals which provide service to this working community and its families.

From the perspective of the international agreements signed by Colombia and recognizing that the dignity of workers is one, we the negotiators of SINTRACARBON have demanded the improvement of working conditions for the 7,000 workers in the mine who provide services and are hired by third parties. They are denied labor rights, proper attention to their health and union rights. We reject once again that the mine pretends to say that these workers do not do fundamental labor work ; they are our companions in mining activities, maintenance and mining coordination.

Silence has been the reply of the Company to our demand in the present negotiation process that it agree not to change the course change of the Rancheria River, which would put at risk the life of the only river of the Guajira and the lives of those thousands of persons who depend upon it. Contemporary technology permits developing methods of mining coal which do not destroy the life of the river, the environmental quality of our Department and the health of the communities.

Likewise, those of us who have been spokesmen for the 3,780 workers in this process feel frustrated because we have not received a reply of the Company to our request that its program of social responsibility be properly effective, above all in relation to the communities which are displaced from the zone of mining operations and which they suffer the loss of their sources of income and customs.

In the process of discussions in which we demonstrated our willigness to consider options, the negotiators made it possible to adjust the economic request of the workers of Cerrejon to the realities of the most profitable coal mine in the country and the perspectives of temporary reduction of the international price of coal. This attitude did not find a response by a Company which is preparing to invest $1.3 billion dollars in technology but does not wish to increase present labor cost by even 3%. Those labor costs now are 6.5% of the total of their income.

Instead of the transparency of a negotiating process which we are carrying out before public opinion with great seriousness, instead of our disposition for dialogue, instead of our openness to holding meetings with spokespersons of the National Government, which are not ordered by law, we members of SINTRACARBON have encountered a campaign of disparagement initiated by the Company against the negotiating Committee, with a rush to put the Government at the service of their interest and with a lack of interest in hearing and responding to our just and humble proposals for negotiation.

As a conseqence of the failure of the negotiations with Carbones del Cerrejon and in the unappealable decision of our union to struggle for a better quality of life for the workers it represents and for communities in the vicinity of the mine and Puerto Bolivar, we find ourselves obligated to make the sacrifice of declaring a strike. During this time our familiies will suffer the reduction of their income, pressure of the officials of the Company and the worsening of their conditions of life, but they and we workers accept making this significant effort because we consider that Carbones del Cerrejon Ltd could be a model of business and social responsibility if they were to accept our proposals.

With the seriousness that characterizes us, upon the base or our democratic history, in virtue of the responsibility which the Colombian people recognize in our union organization, we declare the cessation of activities beginning at 3 p.m. today. We are confident that the Ministry of Labor will offer this working communtiy the guarantees necessary to carry out this Constitutional right which covers us as Colombians.

The Negotiating Committee

(The translations may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.)


Cerrejon coal miners accept 3-year wage deal

Jack Kimball


8 March 2013

BOGOTA - Workers at Colombia's biggest coal exporter, Cerrejon, have accepted a three-year salary offer, paving the way for the signing of a final deal on Friday to end a month-long strike, union officials said.

Cerrejon's walkout since Feb. 7 is the last major supply problem remaining in Colombia, the world's fourth-largest coal exporter, after a regulator last week lifted a suspension on No. 2 exporter Drummond Ltd and a ban on nighttime operations at the main coal railway.

"The majority of workers embraced the deal and we'll be working on drafting (the agreement) today," Sintracarbon union president Igor Diaz told Reuters.

Cerrejon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Another senior union official, Orlando Cuello, said they hoped to finish editing the deal and sign it on Friday.

Workers chose a three-year offer as opposed to another two-year choice on the table because the longer-period agreement would give them a bonus of around $7,000, he said.

That deal gives laborers a salary increase of 5.1 percent in the first year and then other increments adjusted for inflation in the following two years, Cuello said.

Before the strike began, the company offered a rise of 5 percent while the union asked for 7 percent.

The deal may be seen as a setback for union leaders though a bonus, similar to one offered by Cerrejon at the start of talks, will be a welcome relief to workers who have gone without pay since the walkout began.

Cerrejon - a joint venture between Anglo American Plc, BHP Billiton Ltd and Xstrata Plc - had to declare force majeure on some shipments due to its first walkout in two decades.

The Andean country has faced a spate of unrest across its commodity sectors, ranging from the strike at Cerrejon and suspension at Drummond to a stoppage by coffee farmers and bombings of oil pipelines.

President Juan Manuel Santos is under increasing pressure and attacks by rivals for his handling of the myriad problems.

Ten years of U.S.-backed military operations against leftist rebel groups have opened large swathes of Colombian territory to new investment and helped secure areas where exploration and production were already in progress.

Like other commodity-exporting countries, Colombia has faced increased environmental, labor and social demands, which some analysts say have replaced guerrillas as the main risk for investors.

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