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Cablegate: Port Strike in Buenaventura Avoided for Now

VZCZCXYZ0020
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHBO #4125/01 3182243
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 132243Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY BOGOTA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5585
INFO RUEHBR/AMEMBASSY BRASILIA PRIORITY 8500
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS PRIORITY 1325
RUEHLP/AMEMBASSY LA PAZ NOV 9769
RUEHPE/AMEMBASSY LIMA PRIORITY 6741
RUEHZP/AMEMBASSY PANAMA PRIORITY 2662
RUEHQT/AMEMBASSY QUITO PRIORITY 7436
RUEHGL/AMCONSUL GUAYAQUIL PRIORITY 4685

UNCLAS BOGOTA 004125

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PTER PGOV PREL ECON SOCI CO
SUBJECT: PORT STRIKE IN BUENAVENTURA AVOIDED FOR NOW

REF: BOGOTA 2173

SUMMARY
--------
1. (SBU) After a strike threat by Buenaventura port
employees in early October, the Social Protection Ministry
quickly established a dialogue with workers and port
authority officials, and also initiated a 30-day plan to
review workers' complaints. The unions want to negotiate
directly with the private company operating the port instead
of working through cooperatives; obtain regular hours, wages,
and sick leave; and receive a commitment by the private Port
Authority to invest more in the community. A municipal
official told us that due to the city's estimated 65%
unemployment rate, a strike remains unlikely. Buenaventura
is Colombia's largest port--70% of the country's bulk trade
passes through the city. End Summary.

Workers Demand Better Pay, Social Investment
--------------------------------------------
2. (SBU) In early October, over 3000 Buenaventura port
workers threatened to strike. Port workers union
(SINTRAMARITIMO) President Harold Alegria told us the unions
want to negotiate directly with the Port Authority; abolish
cooperatives in favor of direct-hire jobs; obtain regular
hours, wages, and sick leave; and receive a commitment from
the Port Authority--which was privatized in 1991--to invest
more in the community. Alegria said workers were frustrated
because the port made large profits, while the port's
residents lacked clean water or electricity. Port Authority
President Domingo Chinea said the firm supported some social
programs, but conceded most profits went to shareholders.
Buenaventura is Colombia's largest port--70% of all bulk
trade passes through the city.

3. (SBU) Buenaventura Social Protection Ministry (MPS)
inspector Ana Hurtado told us that cooperatives exploited
high unemployment rates by hiring workers for only a few days
per month so they were "desperate enough" to accept low
wages. Most workers averaged only 4-8 days of work per month
with salaries of 20-40 USD per day. The Colombian minimum
wage per month is about $200. Celso Castro, President of one
of the four smaller port unions, said cooperatives often paid
salaries late, thereby requiring workers to take out
cooperative-provided 10% per day interest loans. Alegria
said workers wanted pay parity--currently every cooperative
offers a different wage per tonnage of cargo unloaded. An
MPS inspector told us that the Cooperatives Law passed in
June gave inspectors the tools they needed to punish
cooperatives that used sub-contracting or evaded social
security payments.

GOC Response Delays Strike
-----------------------
4. (U) Social Protection Minister Diego Palacio responded
to the threatened port strike by setting up a special labor
inspection office at the port on October 2. He later met
with representatives of the Port Authority, cooperatives,
workers, unions, and the city to begin a formal dialogue. On
November 10, MPS employees met with the same group and
established a 30-day plan to review the workers' concerns.
MPS Inspector Hurtado said that even though cooperative
members could not formally register as unionists under
Colombia's labor code (due to workers' status as co-owners,
not employees), the MPS had decided to negotiate with the
unions in good faith. The MPS also agreed to expedite the
inspection of all 151 port cooperatives with five temporary
duty inspectors sent from Bogota. Regional Inspector General
Julio Medina told us the GOC was determined to avoid a
strike, especially after the devastating trucker strike in
June 2008 (see reftel).

Port Authority Acknowledged Abuses, Denied Responsibility
--------------------------------------------- -----------
5. (SBU) Chinea agreed that cooperatives were committing
abuses, but said the only long-term solution was legislation
that established minimum payments per ton of cargo, much like
ports in Costa Rica and Chile. He sent a proposal to the MPS
in this regard, underscoring the Port Authority's interest in
avoiding costly labor conflicts. He said the GOC needed to
monitor more closely what the cooperatives were doing; the
privately-owned Port Authority is not responsible, as they do
not hire the workers. Port-based Labor Inspector Esquivel
said a September 28, 2008 Ministry of Transportation
resolution required the Port Authority to take a more direct
role in managing port operations--including labor relations.

Strike Unlikely
---------------
6. (SBU) Buenaventura Deputy Mayor Orlando Valencia told us
that due to Buenaventura's estimated 65% unemployment rate, a
strike would be unlikely due to workers' fear of being
replaced. He said the port is the largest employer in the
city, with 3,000-8,000 highly-desirable jobs. Chinea
acknowledged that the dire economic situation contributed to
the historic absence of strikes, but added that the lack of a
culture of social protest on the Pacific coast was another
factor. He contrasted this with the inland areas of Valle de
Cauca and Cauca where social protests, evidenced by the
recent indigenous and sugar cane cutters' protests, were
commonplace. Valencia noted that the strike threat would
likely be defused by cooperatives' concessions on wages and
hours, as well as increased social investment by the Port
Authority.
BROWNFIELD

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