March 9, 2015 / 7:34 PM / 3 years ago

Colombia's Ecopetrol says it can keep oil flowing if strike starts

BOGOTA, March 9 (Reuters) - Colombia’s largest oil producer, state-run Ecopetrol, has prepared a contingency workforce to maintain output should strike action by the main oil sector union go ahead and foresees no disruption to oil flows, a senior official told Reuters.

The country’s main oil workers union, USO, voted last Wednesday to stage an indefinite strike unless negotiations with the government result in an agreement by March 26.

The union is protesting the recent axing of thousands of jobs in the oil sector, many among third-party contractors, because of a 50 percent drop in oil prices since mid 2014. Ecopetrol is not shedding any direct employees but has imposed a hiring freeze and may not renew expiring contracts.

“Ecopetrol has a contingency plan to carry out all activities including production in the fields and running the refinery at Barrancabermeja,” said an Ecopetrol official who said he was not authorized to be named in press reports.

He said non-unionized administrative and other staff have previously been trained in an additional production-related job functions, to ensure oil flows are not disrupted during labor disputes.

Oil companies in Colombia, Latin America’s fourth-biggest producer, have slashed exploration budgets, although the ACP association representing private companies says oil output would hold steady at around 1 million barrels per day on average.

About one-third of Ecopetrol’s 9,000 direct employees are USO members, the source said. He said they had little incentive to join the strike since their jobs were not threatened and because doing so could lead to their dismissal.

Strike action at Ecopetrol is illegal under Colombian law because the company’s activity is considered an essential service. More than 200 were dismissed after a strike in 2004, the most recent stoppage at the company.

Normal production was maintained during that strike, which lasted around one month, the official said.

“This strike would be declared illegal ... (Participants)will be called back to their jobs and if they don’t return there will be sanctions that can lead to dismissals,” he said.

Ecopetrol usually has about 25,000 indirect employees working on its projects employed by third-party contractors, involved in construction or maintenance, which does not affect production in the short term.

Those are the jobs threatened now as Ecopetrol revises contracts or cancels them outright, after slashing its 2015 investment budget by 26 percent from last year.

There are not believed to be any USO members among direct employees at Colombia’s biggest private sector oil producer, Toronto-listed Pacific Rubiales.

USO chief Edwin Castano could not immediately be reached for comment. (Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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