Worker Cooperatives in Colombia: The Reality Behind the Rhetoric

Employers create CTAs in order to avoid having to support unionization, collective bargaining, and other basic labor rights to which they would normally be subject if their workers were treated as such: employees. Whereas employers are traditionally responsible for paying two-thirds of contributions to government benefit programs such as the National Apprenticeship Service (SENA), the Colombian Institute for Family Well Being (ICBF), the Family Equalization Fund and the social security system, which includes health care and retirement payments, CTA associates are responsible for making all of the legally-mandated government contributions themselves.

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.