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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.

Jens Mesa, the president of the Palm Oil Federation, said the sector is being unfairly singled out. He said plantations provide jobs in poor areas and pointed to a recent study by a respected Bogota think-tank that concluded palm workers receive better wages and benefits than 80 percent of all other Colombian farm laborers.

“You have to put all this in perspective,” Mesa said.

But according to the US State Department’s most recent report on human rights in Colombia, the spread of co-ops has allowed palm oil and other businesses to sidestep labor laws. “This practice limited worker rights and undermined worker protections by preventing unionization,” the report said.

For example, temporary workers may only be used for short-term or seasonal jobs. But until recently, these laws did not apply to co-op members because they are — supposedly — small business owners rather than employees. Many end up working full-time hours on a series of temporary contracts but without the benefits of full-time employees.

Though they often complain about their employment status, co-op members cannot legally call work stoppages.

“That’s the main reason why companies like co-ops," said Ricardo Aricapa of the National Labor School, a Medellin-based research center. "If you avoid unions, you avoid strikes.” 

The New Imperialism

Colombian unions are notorious for knee-jerk left-wing politics, and to that end Sintrainagro falls neatly into line. Taped to the wall at its union hall in Puente Sogamoso is a poster denouncing the presence of American military advisors in Colombia. It says: “Imperialists get out!”

Yet in the showdown with the co-ops, Washington has become labor’s new best friend.

A large section of the Labor Action Plan — the side agreement to the US-Colombia free trade pact — takes direct aim at the co-ops. For example, it requires that Colombia speed up implementation of a 2010 law that prohibits co-ops from acting as temp agencies. It also calls on Colombia to hire 100 new labor inspectors, half of whom are to be devoted to monitoring co-ops in the palm-oil industry and other sectors.

Some observers say it was no coincidence that the $6.5 million in fines announced by the government last month came just days before Pardo, the labor minister, arrived in Washington to present a progress report on Colombia’s compliance.

“This is the Colombian government’s first action in the past 30 years that actually benefits workers. But without the free-trade agreement it would not be happening,” said Aricapa of the National Labor School.

“This is labor’s 15 minutes,” he added. “They have to seize the moment.”

Aricapa and other analysts claim that if the Labor Action Plan is strictly enforced, nearly all the co-ops in the palm-oil industry would be shuttered and plantations would be forced to hire more direct workers who would then have the right to join unions. Better wages and benefits, in turn, could help more of these workers to reach the middle class.

“Part of Colombia’s future economic success is going to depend on whether they can grow a middle class,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who is part of a congressional group monitoring compliance with the action plan, told GlobalPost. “For their economy and for their own security, paying attention to some of these basic economic rights and values is important.”

But the Santos government is facing fierce resistance.

Uribe, whose Las Brisas company was sanctioned by the Labor Ministry in February, insists that the co-ops working for his company are legal and said he would appeal the fine. He added that if companies are forced to hire more full-time employees, it would slam the brakes on a growing industry.

And in an odd twist, it’s the palm-oil producers who are now complaining about yanqui imperialists.

Mesa, the head of the Palm Oil Federation, suggested the Labor Action Plan was a way for US agribusiness to saddle Colombian palm-oil producers with higher costs even as the free-trade agreement opens the door here for cheap, imported oils from the United States. He called the US-mandated plan “humiliating.”

Colombian officials point out they have only 1,400 inspectors to monitor companies and co-ops throughout the nation. But in an interview with GlobalPost, Pardo, the labor minister, insisted: “We will bring them in line.”   

Rep. Miller, who met with Pardo in Washington last month, said the Colombian government seems committed to charting a new course in spite of the huge challenges.

“This is a difficult history to unravel, to redirect and get a new start on,” Miller said. “There are a lot of vested interests and people who think (the co-op model) is the way it should be.”

Miller has a point. Even as some co-ops are being sanctioned and shut down, union activists claim they are being replaced by similar agencies that provide the same, cheap, non-union labor — in effect co-ops by another name.

Or, in the words of McGovern: “Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.” 

John Otis is GlobalPost's correspondent in Colombia. "Meet the New Boss" is part of a GlobalPost 'Special Report' on labor rights around the world.