The open pit coal mine of Cerrejón in la Guajira, Colombia, has recently suffered from railway blockades by former employees who were dismissed 20 months ago but are now demanding their jobs back. The protests have been going on for two weeks, halting coal transportation to Puerto Bolívar, and causing daily losses of USD 4.58 million while putting at risk the jobs of 11,000 workers, according to Glencore, the owner of the facilities.
The company, which has a history of disagreements with the local Wayuu community and representatives of their labour union, claimed that protestors are not part of the group and, thus, denies their legitimacy.
A former public official, now an executive in the mining industry, explained, “Glencore’s operating budget changed and needed to reduce the number of workers to keep the project viable. They followed the correct process: compensation was paid and the Ministry of Labour was consulted. However, there are political interests in the region due to an upcoming electoral process and some candidates are looking for support by exploiting these labour issues.”
“There are political interests in the region due to an upcoming electoral process and some candidates are looking for support by exploiting these labour issues.”
Former public official, now mining executive, Colombia
A contributing factor to these difficulties is the poor security situation in Colombia, “The blockades, which have been going on for two weeks now, have generated millions of dollars in losses, and put at risk the other workers of Cerrejón. But even in the face of such a delicate situation for everyone, there has been no support from the security forces, the police or the army.”
Disputes with local workers date back to 2020, when the company’s largest union went on a three-month strike after failing to reach agreements on health care, education, and wages. Furthermore, in May 2021, the company issued a force majeure, when former employees blocked a rail line which, coupled with road blockades in September 2021, resulted in the company suffering a 70% of reduction in production.
In the meantime, Glencore is facing severe reputational issues in Colombia, after the Chicago-based Corporate Accountability Lab, a human rights legal activist group, reported that the Glencore-owned Prodeco Group, one of the top-three producers and exporters of Colombian coal, supported illegal armed groups to threaten union leaders in the country. The claims date back as far as 2014, when PAX, a Dutch NGO, documented these human rights violations.
“Prodeco is currently updating its environmental management plan in accordance with legal requirements to hand over the mine in an operational condition.”
Mining executive, Colombia
A mining executive in Colombia reported that Prodeco was in the process of leaving Colombia, “It is important to note that some companies of the Prodeco Group, which is owned by Glencore, are in the process of winding up contracts for the La Jagua and Calenturitas mines due to the resignation of the mining contracts that were accepted in 2021 by the mining authority. Prodeco is currently updating its environmental management plan in accordance with legal requirements to hand over the mine in an operational condition.”
As such, experts have called on Glencore, as owner of Prodeco, to engage in an integrated transition plan to protect local workers, communities, and the environment to avoid leaving a legacy of unresolved social and environmental problems.