What is a labor cooperative?

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Workers around the world, particularly in countries with notoriously anti-union governments such as Colombia and the Philippines, are being pushed into labor “cooperatives.” Labor cooperatives have become a common way for employers to put a positive sounding name on the ugly practices of subcontracting and outsourcing. Labor cooperatives are essentially employment agencies, owned by wealthy elites with business interests in mind over the interests of workers. They do not resemble worker-owned cooperatives which have been able to empower small coffee or cocoa farmers, for example. Workers often join cooperatives because they have no choice and many do not understand the implications of joining.

The Colombian Sugar Sector: Labor Cooperatives, Low Wages and Safety Concerns

Colombia has a lucrative sugar industry which has increasingly benefited from tax break incentives as demand for sugar based biofuel increases. The majority of Colombia’ sugar cane cutters are Afro-Colombian and are forced into an indirect relationship with their employers through labor cooperatives known as “associative cooperatives.”

Laborers receive a wage that is 45% lower than those hired directly by the sugarcane firms because they are paid based on the quantity of cane they produce. Sugarcane workers in cooperatives must deduct funds for primary education, healthcare, and other social benefits from their salaries because they are not legally entitled to any of the regular benefits allocated to regular workers. The deductions applied to the workers’ gross salaries (allegedly for social security benefits and Associative Cooperatives’ maintenance costs) are actually transferred to sugarcane entrepreneurs, in terms of subsidies, and to board members and employees of the associative cooperatives.

Sugarcane cutters are heavily exploited. They work up to 16 hours a day without a break. They suffer from serious health issues since their labor leads to physical debilitation and fatigue, permanent exposure to the harsh climate, permanent contact with chemicals utilized in the industrial processing of the crop, and exposure to high temperatures and ashes from the burning cane. Given their indirect employment status, they have cannot legally demand better conditions from their employers because they are not covered by regular labor laws.

Workers have tried to improve their conditions by organizing and mobilizing, regardless of the fact that they cannot officially unionize and bargaining collectively.

In the fall of 2008, 10,000 Colombian Sugar Cane Cutters staged a 56 day strike in protest of horrendous working conditions. After striking, they won a better wage system and other benefits, but will still be denied the right to permanent employment and a direct contract with their employer.