By Diana Carolina Vega Higuera, Intern, USLEAP
In Colombia, the government portrays Cooperatives (Cooperativos de Trabajo Asociado, CTAs) as mechanisms of employment generation, economic growth, and collective wealth. But, particularly in the oil palm industry, the rhetoric does not live up to the reality.
Cooperatives are generally defined as non-profit ventures in which workers own and democratically manage the operation. In Colombia, however, CTAs are typically glorified subcontracting agencies that operate under the pretense of democratic management.
The issue is that Associated Labor Cooperative workers are considered owners, not employees, and are therefore excluded from the application of Colombian labor law. CTA workers do not have the right to establish trade unions to improve labor conditions because, in theory, they are their own bosses. They do not receive a stable salary, healthcare, pension payments and other benefits as outlined in Colombian labor law. Rather, workers must meet a production quota and go unpaid when weather conditions are unfavorable and production is down. They are required to contract their own health insurance and do not have paid vacation or sick days. Many times they have to work Sundays, extra hours, and holidays without receiving overtime pay. And although Colombian law treats CTA workers as employers, they are still subject to brutal management practices and have little power to determine what happens on the Cooperative.
As a Colombian student and intern with USLEAP and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, I had the opportunity to talk to palm oil workers about their experiences in the oil palm industry. They have given me personal accounts of the challenges of working on a CTA.
Take Pedro, a father of four who works on an oil palm plantation on CTA. Pedro spent two years trying to buy the bricks necessary to build a safe home for his family. As a result of the plantation’s inability to meet productivity standards, however, he was not paid regularly and has been unable to save enough. For Pedro, unreliable payment means that he must wait to purchase the bricks he needs to prevent his house, built with cans and plastic, from falling down.
The instability caused by the establishment of Worker Cooperatives continues to impact the lives of the approximately two million Colombian workers employed by CTAs. Particularly in the oil palm industry, where CTAs offer the primary means of hiring workers, employment conditions are brutal and unpredictable. And yet, this is the reality for almost 6,000 legally registered CTAs throughout the country.
The Colombian government must substantially increase the regulation of Cooperatives to ensure that employees are treated as employees and protected by national labor law. Otherwise, people like Pedro will remain excluded from worker protections, while remaining workers nonetheless.