The Associated Labor Cooperatives in the Buenaventura Port: Chaos and the Degradation of Labor
By: Ricardo Aricapa, Independent Journalist and Researcher
Luis Fernando Mina saw the light for the last time in his life last June in the port of Buenaventura, a few seconds
before a heart attack knocked him down onto the sacks of sugar that he was unloading from a container. According to
the leaders of Sintramaritimos, the union to which Luis Fernando belonged, his death was related to the infernal heat
that prevailed within the container and the over ten hour shift that preceded his accident. Today, three months later,
his widow begs for change in the port, since his family was left in extreme poverty, because Luis Fernando did not
have either life insurance or a pension that they could collect, due to the simple reason that the associated labor
cooperatives and the other employers on the docks for which he labored during the last ten years did not contribute to
his pension fund. Since 1994, the families of another 24 dockworkers who died as a result of accidents or natural
causes and of the other 60 dockworkers who became disabled have shared the fate of Luis Fernando’s family.
This case study shows the high level of risk that the dockworkers must confront, especially when, in the case of
Buenaventura, the labor conditions are so hostile. This is also a strong yet pathetic example of the social abandonment
and labor degradation that is taking place in the port. It is necessary to compare and contrast this situation with how
things were before 1993, the year in which Colpuertos was liquidated. Today, the distance between the benefits and
guarantees (gained through collective bargaining) that the workers who labored under that state enterprise enjoyed and
the drastic situation that exists now is abysmal. These workers must confront not just instability at work (today they
have contracts, but tomorrow who knows), but also low, in some cases perverse salaries, cutbacks and retentions of
social security benefits, shifts of more than 15 continuous hours, without extra pay for work at night or on Sundays (in
some cases, without even a snack), and other similar kinds of anomalies.
A port in trouble
After the liquidation of Colpuertos, the administration of the port was left in the hands of the Sociedad Portuaria
Regional de Buenaventura S.A., through a twenty year concession contract. This company was composed of 83%
private capital (importers, exporters, port operators, shipping lines, professional associations, former dock workers and
other private investors), 15% belonged to the Buenaventura mayor’s office, and 2% belonged to the Ministry of
As part of the conditions of the concession contract, the Sociedad Portuaria must maintain the port at an optimum level
of efficiency, modernization, and technological development, which it has tried to do through improving its location,
expanding its facilities, and acquiring cranes and other specialized machines. But these improvements have not been
carried out at the necessary pace, judging by the enormous operating problems that plague the port of Buenaventura.
This port is Colombia’s commercial heart, since it handles 46% of its commerce with other countries; last year it
moved close to 11 million tons and received 1,600 ships at its docks. In addition, the Buenaventura-Cali highway, on
which two thousand trucks travel every day, is constantly in the news due to frequent landslides and blockages.
However, the labor situation at the port has not been shown on the news, even though it is also very critical. It is a
product of problems that date back to the creation of the Sociedad Portuaria, since the concession contract did not
mention labor topics, which left them open to free interpretation and lax management. Due to this, the company could
implement a model of outsourcing labor in all operational areas, with a tiny workforce reduced to the executives and
employees of the administrative area. (In contrast, at the end of the decade of the 80s, Colpuertos had 12,000
trabajadores on its payroll.) All the logistics of loading and unloading fell into the hands of port operator companies,
who in turn contracted labor through temp agencies, contractors, and associated labor cooperatives (ALC).
In perspective, this model of labor outsourcing has worked for the Sociedad Portuaria and the port operators, allowing
them to reduce their operating costs, and to break down the formerly powerful union movement into several small
unions without claws or real power and with few resources. For the workers, this model has resulted to be very
damaging, leaving them at the mercy of unstable conditions, salary speculation, and cuts to their social security
benefits. The ALCs, which were legally created through Law 79 of 1988, fit perfectly into the process of labor
outsourcing that was started at the port. Even though these cooperatives were not new (a few of them even functioned
during the Colpuertos era), their rise to dominance began in 1993. The Sociedad Portuaria even helped to promote
them. Many of them were formed and managed by Colpuertos retirees as well as by some of the union leaders of the
But these cooperatives were born maldeformed, differing greatly from the spirit of the law that created them, according
to which their principal objective is allowing the associates of the cooperative, through the joining together of their
resources and labor force, to form their own company, managed autonomously by the members. According to law,
they cannot act as a subcontractor which provides labor to other economic agents. But this is exactly what the ALCs
have done this whole time in the port of Buenaventura. They are cooperatives, according to their letterhead stationary
and the signs hanging outside their offices (that is, when they have offices), but in practice, they act as simple
intermediaries in the provision of labor.
“We thought our situation would get better, but what happened is, it got worse,” categorically affirms Julio Palacio,
President of the Sindicato de Braceros Independientes, affiliate of the CTC, “The Sociedad Portuaria limited itself to
administrating the facilities and it washed its hands of the labor situation. It left the workers up in the air, organized in
weak, malfunctioning cooperatives.”
The price wars
It is calculated that all of the port activity requires between 3,000 and 4,000 workers, between laborers, machinery
operators, and other kinds of workers. However, there are approximately 8,000 workers available, and willing to do
any kind of work at any price. This is a labor force at a discount price, which gives the port operator companies free
rein to lower salaries and evade the law. There is no clear, obligatory regulation in regards to rates of pay, so what
exists is a dirty price war, in which the only losers are the workers, who every day see the value of their labor drop.
In the port, work is paid by the piece, more precisely by the number of days and the number of boats unloaded. And
although some operators pay, for example, $20,000 Colombian pesos per container, others only offer $15,000 or even
$10,000 Colombian pesos. And these rates are not fixed, because they are subject to haggling. What happens is that
the market offer (the name of the agreement signed between the ALC and the contracting company) is very rarely put
on paper, it is done verbally and nothing is signed. This informality allows the operators to change on the fly the terms
of the offer, or even worse, cancel it in favor of another ALC that will work for less, if the initial ALC does not
“nicely” lower the rate that was initially agreed upon. And the rain, the innocent rain, can vary an offer. This happens
in the case of small boats, regarding which the rates are agreed upon by hours, not by ton. But if it rains – and in
Buenaventura it rains frequently – the payment arbitrarily becomes based on the ton, so that the company does not
have to pay for the time that the workers waited indoors until the rain stopped.
Of course, the workers do not get jobs every day. In many cases, they go a day or more without working, even though
they are always ready and willing to do so. But this time is not counted or paid, nor is the time off for religious
holidays, since a Sunday and a Monday holiday is paid at the same rate as a common Wednesday. And the day shift is
the same as the night shift, since there is no extra pay for night work, and vacations are not paid either. On the pay
stubs, the only information found is the amount of the salary, the number of hours and boats worked, and the small
sum paid for transportation. Nothing else.
The dockworkers who earn the most (between $500,000 and $800,000 Colombian pesos every 15 days) are the crane
operators, the “wincheros.” Their work is based on concentration, precision, and shifts of up to twelve hours.
Sometimes they have to eat their meals in the operating booth of the crane, since the work cannot wait. The next
highest category is the stevedores, who are the largest labor force on the docks. They load and unload with their pure
physical force, a task which is carried out not just under conditions of high temperatures, but in many cases they must
do double shifts and work through the night. They earn between $300,000 and $400.000 Colombian pesos every 15
days, that is, those who are lucky, since below that are many workers who earn trifling salaries. Many earn just
$200,000 Colombian pesos every 15 days, which is less than the minimum wage.
The laborers are in another category, with their specialty being the loading of tractor trailers. These workers are
contracted directly by the truck driver, who makes a verbal agreement on the rate. This rate has lowered considerably,
since the majority of the cargo now does not arrive in sacks or unpackaged, but in containers, which requires much less
labor. This has forced many laborers to become stevedores and look for work among the boats. Julio Palacio,
mentioned earlier, who is also the manager of the Cooperativa de Braceros del Puerto, recognizes that his cooperative
has shrunk. From an initial 425 associates, now there are just 178 of the youngest workers left. The older workers
have a hard time finding a truck driver to hire them, so many of them pass their time playing dominoes and cards in a
well-known Buenaventura park.
“Briefcase cooperatives” and other anomalies
In this strange labor stew that today is the Buenaventura port, there is a rare specimen of ALC that moves like a fish in
water. They are the so-called “briefcase cooperatives,” an indisputable example of the extent of the degradation of the
ALCs in Colombia. To begin with, they do not comply with the protocols and legal requirements for cooperatives.
They actually don’t care if they comply or not, and some of them do not even have an office from which they can
manage the activities of the cooperative. Actually, the office is where the manager, or owner, of the cooperative is
standing or sitting. This manager always walks around with a briefcase in which he carries all of the papers having to
do with the business of the cooperative. For that reason they are called briefcase cooperatives.
These cooperatives began to appear three years ago, when the Sociedad Portuaria decreed that to work on the docks,
the laborers must be affiliated to the social security system, while before it was sufficient to just be certified by the
DAS. The independent workers who are not affiliated to an ALC were hurt by this measure, since it is essential for
them to enter on the docks to look for work on the boars, and it was very expensive for them to enter into the social
security system making payments as self-employed workers. So at this point, the briefcase cooperatives appeared on
the scene, which allowed these workers to affiliate to social security through a system of auto-payment, but only for
the three or four days that the job on the boat lasts. At first, these cooperatives charged $54,000 Colombian pesos for
this intermediation, later there was one that offered a lower price at $40,000 pesos, and recently there is one that only
charges $30,000 pesos.
The Cooperativa de Braceros del Puerto, for example, has lost a lot of its members due to these briefcase cooperatives.
Julio Palacio, the manager, says that these kinds of cooperatives are personal businesses. “They earn good money,” he
affirms, “and for that reason you see them hanging out and drinking beer all day. But those who want to compete with
them or denounce their bad practices end up in problems. For that reason its better to pretend to be deaf, dumb, and
It is true that the law says that “the ALCs cannot act as intermediaries providing labor [….] not only are they not
authorized to do this, they must comply with all the prevailing labor legislation and have only one exclusive
objective”. However, in the port of Buenaventura, the ALCs ignore these rules, to serve as subcontractors of
To the anomaly mentioned earlier, we can add the administrative laxness, which generates distortions in the
management and hierarchical order of the cooperatives. The accounting books are a mystery, as well as the amount of
the profits, when they are reported, because normally the cooperatives show a balance in the red at the end of every
period. The provisioning of work implements is equally irregular. By law, the ALCs must give out these implements
three times a year, but on the docks they do this once or maybe twice a year, in an incomplete way.
And in regards to the decision making bodies, the administrative council is the body which has a lot of weight in these
cooperatives, but this power is more formal than real. The assemblies of affiliates don’t even have the power that they
should, due to the fact that they are supposedly the most powerful entity in any cooperative. You can count on the
fingers of one hand (and you would have fingers to spare) the number of cooperatives who actually hold general
membership assemblies (the law orders them to hold at least one general assembly per year), and if they do hold them,
they are parodies of real assemblies. It is the manager and one or two of his close friends who have the final word on
all the decisions; it seems that all of the ALCs of the port are managed in this way. Harold Alegria, President of the
Sintramaritimos union, says “the managers here are appointed for life; no one can kick them out. They manipulate the
administrative council and the general assembly to their own benefit”.
These tendencies are aggravated due to the precarious training of the members of the cooperatives. By law, they
should receive a course on cooperatives of at least twenty hours duration. This course is given in Buenaventura by the
SENA. But not all receive the training, and for those who do, it is mere window dressing. “In the Cooperativa de
Braceros del Puerto,” Julio Palacio says, “Half of the members have taken the course. But they are wasted hours since
they do not pay attention to the class. Of every 50 people who take the class, only five pay attention, the rest just sit
through it waiting for it to end, and to receive their certificate of attendance, and then, ciao”.
Another visible anomaly is the deductions that the ALCs retain from their members, in order to create a savings fund
which covers pensions and unemployment benefits, which in cooperative language is called benefits. For this reason,
21.8% is deducted from every paycheck. This is illegal, since unemployment funds and other benefits are a right
bestowed upon the worker, which means that the employer (in this case, the cooperative) must deposit the funds for
these benefits in an unemployment insurance fund, and in no way should this money be deducted from the workers’
And finally, the fifth anomaly, which we can dub the quintessence of shame, is the sale of labor by the “agoitistas,” a
heartless practice which is now common in the port. There are cooperatives and contractors who do not pay their
salaries on time; sometimes the delay is up to two or three months. This is a desperate situation for the dockworkers,
since they live day-to-day. To put it simply, if they don’t work, they don’t eat. So if they don’t get paid, they eat less,
and for this reason they resort to using the services of the “agiotistas,” people who “buy” the paychecks of the workers,
and then charge them for it. For this service, they charge a minimum of 15% of the workers’ pay.
To make this situation worse, the denouncements of these anomalies are very rarely taken seriously in the courts and
other state entities that are charged with regulating work and cooperatives. Harold Alegria says that there has never
been any kind of sanction against a company or a cooperative in the port for these and other irregularities.
Social Security torn to shreds
Articles 15 and 16 of Decree 468 of 1990, which regulates the ALCs, says that they must establish some kind of social
security for their members, which includes health care and occupational risk insurance, as well as affiliation to a
pension plan and to a family services institute. However, this is something just on paper, since in the port, it is very
uncommon that they contribute to the pension fund of their members, and that they only pay a fraction of the health
care and occupational risk insurance, meaning not for an entire month but for just four or five days, or the equivalent
of the time that the boat is at port. However, the cooperative member’s pay is deducted for the entire month.
As an example we can examine the pay stub of David Castillo, a winchero at the service of the Coopacifico
cooperative, although he is not a full member. This means that technically, he should be paid according to ordinary
labor law, and not the laws regarding cooperatives. Of the $845,000 Colombian pesos that he earned during the
previous two weeks, $105,000 pesos were deducted in this manner: $38,000 pesos for health care and occupational risk
insurance, zero for pensions since he does not pay for that benefit, $42,000 pesos to the cooperative for administrative
costs, and $25,000 pesos for the unemployment insurance fund.
In regards to occupational safety, the situation is literally lugubrious, and to prove this one only has to examine the lists
of deaths and incapacities caused by work related accidents. Harold Alegria informs us that since 1994, there has been
350 work related accidents, causing 24 deaths and 60 permanent disablements, and to this date no family has been
compensated. The Sociedad Portuaria has tried to improve this situation, among other things responding to the
denouncements made by Sintramaritimos. The company has conducted educational campaigns and has negotiated new
rules with the port operators and the unions, to promote the use of hardhats and other kinds of protective clothing.
Despite this, work on the docks continues to be a high risk activity, and this risk will increase with greater congestion
in the port. So many containers all over the place leave little room for the circulation of people and vehicles. In
addition, the cargo itself can be dangerous, because in the port many chemicals are shipped and there is a great risk for
contamination by powders.
Without a doubt, the recurrent accidents are also related to the fact that there are no established, regular shifts. The
workday lasts as long as the port operator requires: ten, twelve, fifteen or more hours without a break and without
relief. The operator prefers that the worker labors a double shift, since this lowers his costs, since it means less labor is
required. The stevedore Juan Renteria tells how he saw a workmate die one early morning as he was finishing the
unloading of a boat. He had worked all night, and for his tiredness, he did not react when a landslide of dislodged
sacks tumbled towards him, due to the mishandling of a machine. He died, buried under six tons of sugar.
As if this was not enough, the workers are unfairly charged for the damages they cause. Harold Alegria opines, “A
work related accident can occur to anyone, but the dockworker is not forgiven for this. He is not charged all at once,
he can take out a loan so that he can pay, and this loan is deducted from his paychecks. We denounced the case of a
winchero who was charged $1,200,000 Colombian pesos for a wall that he accidentally knocked down, while another
person who did the same thing was once charged $2,000,000 pesos”.
Regarding the dockworkers’ unions (the three that exist), they have not been able to do much to improve the workers’
conditions in the port. The truth is that just the fact that these unions are still alive and fighting is an achievement, due
to the hostile environment in which they operate. All of the unions lack resources and have little connection with the
labor confederations that they are affiliated to. Sintramaritimos is the most important union of the three, and it carries
out all its business with a desk and ten plastic chairs, which are its only assets.
In regards to the ALCs, the dockworkers unions do not agree. Some defend them, partly because they benefit or direct
them, like Oliver Mosquera, member and leader of the Coopacifico ALC. He says that the problem is not the ALCs
but the state, which has weakened the cooperatives and left them to their own fate. “What we have to do is strengthen
them,” he concludes. However, Sintramaritimos radically opposes the cooperatives. They believe that the ALCs
should disappear and there should be just one employer at the port, which de facto should be the Sociedad Portuaria.
“Before, the labor situation was clear,” explains Harold Alegria, “Colpuertos was the only employer. Now all the port
operators contract separately, which means that there are many employers. The only entity that is not an employer is
the Sociedad Portuaria, which is the entity that should have that function. This is what we are fighting for now, to end
The government will have to decide soon if it will renew the concession contract of the Sociedad Portuaria, which will
expire in 2013, or if it will hand it to another company. Either way, this will be an appropriate moment to look for
solutions to the labor situation in the port. The leaders of the three unions have already met twice with representatives
of the Sociedad Portuaria, the port operators, and the Ministry of Transportation. In both meetings, they have
presented their proposal to unify the contracting system, as the clearest way of ending the chaos and labor degradation
in the Buenaventura terminal.