UPDATE 1-Colombia's main oil union suspends planned strike

Wed Mar 25, 2015 8:00pm EDT
 
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BOGOTA, March 25 (Reuters) - Colombia's main oil workers' union, the USO, has called off a planned strike, its president said on Wednesday, averting disruption to the sector which is grappling with the halving of oil prices since the middle of last year.

USO members had voted on March 4 to hold a strike any time after March 26, to protest thousands of job cuts as major producers such as state-run Ecopetrol and Toronto-listed Pacific Rubiales slash investment and defer projects.

"We have decided to suspend the indefinite strike for now," USO President Edwin Castano said. "We trust the government will resolve the problems confronting the oil sector."

The workers also feared that the government would dispose of some of its 88 percent stake in the Ecopetrol, concerns that government officials sought to allay in a meeting with union members on Wednesday.

The head of the government planning department, Simon Gaviria, reassured USO leaders there were no plans for "privatization" in a meeting also attended by Mines and Energy Minister Tomas Gonzalez and Labor Minister Luis Eduardo Garzon.

Ecopetrol, which produces more than half of Colombia's oil, has said it would face little or no disruption if the strike went ahead, due to a contingency plan that would deploy workers to production sites.

Strike action by Ecopetrol's own full time employees would also be illegal because oil production is deemed an essential service under Colombian law.

Ecopetrol has not cut jobs but the company has implemented a hiring freeze. Most of the job losses were instead among third-party contractors usually involved in project construction rather than production.

The halving in price of Colombia's top export is expected to hit the economy harder this year than last, when it grew 4.6 percent. International prices remained above $100 per barrel until last June but have hovered around $45-$55 so far in 2015. (Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Carlos Vargas; writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Peter Murphy; editing by Diane Craft)