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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

'Meet the New Boss'

The rise of Colombia's labor co-ops.

PUENTE SOGAMOSO, Colombia — Sweating in the mid-morning heat, Eusebio Rodriguez leads an oxcart between towering palm trees to gather their purple-and-orange fruit, which is used to make palm oil.

Rodriguez, who earns about $15 a day for harvesting a ton and a half of palm fruit, would like to sign up with the local union. That would mean perks, like sick leave and paid vacations, as well as a helmet and gloves to protect his body from the porcupine-like spines protruding from the fruit.

Instead, Rodriguez belongs to a cooperative which offers almost no benefits or job security.

In theory, Colombian co-ops are owned by the workers who provide businesses with niche expertise and split the profits. But according to labor-rights activists as well as a recent US State department report, many co-ops function as glorified temp agencies providing companies with cheap and docile non-union workers.

Because they allow businesses to reduce labor costs, discard workers on a whim, and eliminate the threat of strikes, co-ops have flourished in Colombia. They’ve also sucked the lifeblood from organized labor because co-op members can’t join unions. That’s because rather than cogs in the means of production, co-op workers like Rodriguez are considered under Colombian law to be business owners.

“That’s the main reason why companies like co-ops. If you avoid unions, you avoid strikes.”
~Ricardo Aricapa, National Labor School

“But I'm not the owner of anything,” said Rodriguez, 29, a barely literate high-school dropout and the father of two toddlers. “I hardly earn enough money to buy food.” 

More from GlobalPost: The 'dirty war' against Colombia's unions

The outsourcing of labor in Colombia is part of a broad trend as employers around the world seek to shed costs and responsibility for workers. Rock-bottom wages, in turn, have led to a migration of manufacturing, agricultural and other jobs from the United States to Latin America and Asia.

“We would like there to be a somewhat level playing field for US workers,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who closely follows labor issues in Colombia, told GlobalPost. “But for that to happen, workers must not be intimidated.”

In Colombia, however, the dark legacy of violence against organized labor, often keeps workers from demanding better conditions and denouncing abusive labor structures like co-ops.  

“Colombian workers have the right to stand up and fight back,” said Celeste Drake, an international trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO in Washington. “But it’s especially difficult when there has been this quarter century of terror directed against union members.”

According to the Colombian government, headed by President Juan Manuel Santos, the most abusive co-ops may be on their way out.

In exchange for ratification in October of a trade agreement, that will allow $15 billion per year in Colombian goods to enter the United States duty-free, the Santos government committed to a long list of labor reforms.

A key provision of this so-called Labor Action Plan, which convinced several wavering Democrats to support the trade agreement, is that co-ops acting as temp-agencies-in-disguise must be sanctioned or shut down while businesses contracting their services must also be punished.

During meetings with US officials in February, Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo said that after complaints from trade unions, the government recently fined a palm-oil company and five co-ops a total of more than $6.5 million for abusing workers' rights. According to one Colombian official, the fines are just the beginning of a broader crackdown.

But in Puente Sogamoso, a village in northern Colombia surrounded by an emerald-green carpet of palm plantations, workers affiliated with co-ops still outnumber the sector’s unionized labor force by more than 10 to one, according to Miguel Conde, an official with the local chapter of Sintrainagro, Colombia’s main farm workers union.

Due to legal restrictions, intimidation and the rise of the co-ops, Conde said, “it’s now easier to form a guerrilla group than a union.”

Contracting amid the boom

At a palm-oil plant called Las Brisas on the outskirts of Puente Sogamoso, massive ovens sterilize clusters of palm fruit, about the size of beach balls, which are then fed into presses that extract the raw oil from the pulp. The steam clouds, heat and roar of the machines recall the mills of the Industrial Revolution. Yet the refined, amber-colored liquid meets many modern-day demands.

Used for baked goods and other foods, palm oil contains no trans fats, a major health concern in recent years. And as alternative fuels catch on, palm oil has become a key ingredient in biodiesel. Demand is soaring. US imports of palm oil have jumped tenfold over the past decade.

Over that same period, Colombia’s palm-oil production has nearly doubled to 942,000 tons annually, according to the country’s Palm Oil Federation. That makes Colombia Latin America’s top producer of palm oil and the fifth largest in the world.

Yet even as employment in the sector has swelled, union membership plummeted.

In the Puente Sogamoso region in 1990, nearly half of all palm-oil workers carried union cards. Anticipating further growth, enthusiastic union officials built a meeting hall the size of a high-school gymnasium, by far the largest building in the town.

“We knew the palm-oil expansion was going to be huge,” said Carlos Daniel Ardila, president of the local chapter of Sintrainagro. But, he said, “nearly all the new workers belonged to co-ops, so we couldn’t sign them up.”

Among the roughly 5,000 palm oil workers in the region today, only 350 carry union cards, Ardila said.

More from GlobalPost: The dark side of local politics in Colombia

Behind his office, the cavernous union hall sat empty. Stashed in a corner were rolled up protest banners and a broken bullhorn, while the only sign of life was a swarm of wasps. Ardila said the union is now so weak that not even his daughter, who has a coveted full-time job at Las Brisas, wants to join.

Palm-oil company officials openly applaud the demise of the unions, which they say have only damaged their industry by holding strikes. By contrast, they credit the co-ops with helping them prosper in a highly competitive market in which producer countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have the advantage with far lower labor costs.

On average, co-op workers cost companies about 30 percent less than unionized employees because they do not receive certain benefits, such as paid vacations, year-end bonuses, and salary boosts for seniority. They are also more cost-effective, according to Leon Dario Uribe, general manager of Las Brisas.

While union members receive monthly salaries, co-op workers are paid by how much palm fruit they collect. Union members routinely collect about 1,200 kg per day, Uribe said, while co-op members average 1,800 kg.

“Co-ops were not designed to destroy the unions. They were designed to increase productivity,” Uribe said.