Striking Gabon workers shut down oilfields

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Striking workers in central African oil exporter Gabon began shutting down the nation’s oilfields on Friday to press for more local hiring in the sector, sparing panic fuel buying and a government plea to restart labour talks.

Some 50% of the country’s 220 000 – 240 000 barrels of daily crude oil output will be shut by the end of the day, with the rest scheduled to be halted within 48 hours, Guy-Roger Aurat Reteno, secretary general of the Onep union said.

“Since midnight we started to shut down Gabon’s oilfields. The shutdown procedures are ongoing,” he said, adding distribution of refined fuel in the country was also paralysed.

Residents of the two main cities of Libreville and Port Gentil rushed to filling stations amid talk that supplies could dry up by the weekend, and the government urged union leaders to resume talks.

“Efforts are underway to bring Onep back to the
table, because striking is not the best way to solve this problem,” said Alilat Antseleve Oyima, head of hydrocarbons at the ministry. “Since this morning, many companies have called us to express their concern at this turn of events.”

Reteno said Onep was unwilling to negotiate after protracted talks over local hiring quotas failed, and would continue the strike until its demands were met.

French oil major Total, one of Gabon’s biggest oil producers, confirmed on Friday it had stopped oil production due to the strike. Total’s Gabon output averaged 67 000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2010.

Gabon’s oil sector is one of the continent’s most mature and has been in steady decline since output peaked at around 370,000 bpd in 1997. Energy revenues account for about 40% of the country’s budget.

The Onep union represents about 4 000 of the country’s 5 000 oil workers, and has a long history of grievances over pay and local hiring practices.
Gabon’s government late last year agreed to trade union demands to limit foreign workers in its oil sector to 10% and require all executive posts to be held by Gabonese, but never ratified the law.

President Ali Bongo Odimba said this week he supported “gabonisation” of the oil sector, but said the effort must proceed carefully to ensure the industry remained competitive.