Railwaymen on Strike in Northern Colombia

News from Colombia | on: Thursday, 9 August 2012

Workers that drive the trains and maintain the track on the La Loma-Cesar to Santa Marta and Cienaga line have now been on strike since 23rd of July. The workers, affiliated to the SINTRAIME industrial, metalworkers and train workers’ union, had issued the company that runs the railway, FENOCO (Railways of Northern Colombia) with a list of demands on May 30th, but overwhelmingly voted to go on strike after the negotiations failed to reach any agreement. FENOCO is part owned by Drummond, Prodeco, Vale and CNR (Colombian Natural Resources), which is a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. As SINTRAIME has stated “It isn’t reasonable that the transnational corporations should take the immense natural riches of our country, leaving only illness, destruction, violence, prostitution and misery for the Colombians.”

The railway carries 160,000 tons of coal a day from vast coal mines to the Caribbean ports of Santa Marta and Cienaga. The coal sells for $50 USD a ton, of which the companies pay the Colombian state 4 thousand pesos (equivalent to $2.24 USD) per ton. Therefore the companies make roughly 7 million 640 thousand dollars a day from the coal mines.

Despite this working conditions on the railway and in the mines are precarious. SINTRAIME says that the workers are subjected to sub-contracting, have little job security, and work in poor conditions without social security. In 2009 a previous strike ended with the firing of several workers, who have yet to be reinstated. The strike was brought to an end by the deployment by the state of over 2,000 troops and police. During the strike many workers were fired. On June 29th the unionised half of the workforce of the railway maintenance company MaFylm was also fired. SINTRAIME has accused FENOCO of violating Colombian labour law, by setting up a ‘yellow’ union, and placing union members under pressure to leave the union or lose their jobs. Others have been offered financial inducements to leave the union. The company, whose Director is Peter Burrowes, has tried to use the argument that the line is a public service, since in Colombia public servants are not allowed to strike. The strike would therefore be declared illegal. However, SINTRAIME points out that the line is only used to transport coal for private companies and therefore cannot be considered a public service. Mr Burrowes has also claimed that the trains left stationary on the lines are an environmental hazard to the local people, demanding that the union remove them to clear the lines. This begs the question, if they are hazardous when stationary and unloaded, how dangerous must they be for the workers that labour on them, and for local people when they are fully loaded and travelling?

The list of demands presented on the 30th included the reinstatement of the workers fired in 2009, as well as measures to improve health and safety, the working environment (which is plagued with coal dust) and pay and benefits. The union has also presented demands on behalf of the local community since the 50 trains that daily pass through the local towns and villages cause significant environmental degradation, as well as killing farm animals and some 25 people a year. The deaths are due to the lack of signalling equipment, fencing, or pedestrian overpasses on the railway lines, with the local community indicating that children are most at risk. Local inhabitants also suffer from coal dust inhalation, with 4 out of every 20 suffering some form of respiratory problem. Over 2,000 people suffer from hearing problems caused by the constant traffic of heavy trains right by their homes.

Facing pressure from both the company and from the government, SINTRAIME is calling for solidarity for its workers from both the national and international community.

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