A cooperative made up of ‘changarines’, the casual labourers in charge of shifting crates in and out of Cordoba’s mercado de Abasto (fruit and vegetable market) in Argentina has established itself as the strongest business in the grocery market. They have set up their own school, they build their own carts, and they have a support fund in place for colleagues who become ill.
The Real Academia Española dictionary defines the word ‘changa’ (odd job, in English) as “temporary work, mainly menial tasks”. But luckily enough, there are several examples showing the dictionary can get it wrong sometimes after all. One such example is the cooperative at Cordoba’s fruit and vegetable market, which has gone from being an informal and temporary endeavour to a worthwhile, joint way of working together. The cooperative was born and has continued to grow at the fruit and vegetable market in the Cordoban capital city: a place that has always been rife with informal and precarious work.
The changarines are in charge of loading and unloading crates coming in and out of the market on a daily basis. The majority of the workers who now make up the Abasto’s cooperative were previously part of two businesses which, though using the ‘cooperative’ label, were doing little more than accentuating the poor working conditions the workers experienced. From there, ten changarín workers, fed up with being brushed aside and exploited, decided to form a workers cooperative to change the situation and defend their trade, with the possibility of having their own welfare programme and insurance to cover them for any accidents at work.
“In 2004, a lot of us were working in precarious positions, on the black market and without any medical cover. This is why we decided to get together, to put an end to the exploitation” recalled Orlando Colatto, former treasurer of the Abasto and now president of the province’s Instituto para el Financiamiento de las Cooperativas de Trabajo (IFICOTRA) (Institute for the Funding of Worker Cooperatives, in English). He added that by organising themselves as a cooperative, they have learned how the social economy works: “it has opened our minds and shown us what direction we’d like to go in”. Now, the Abasto market has cemented its position as a bastion of the struggle against black market work and exploitation.
Time to organise
One of the workers’ greatest achievements has been that, through the cooperative, they have been able to carry out centralised negotiations with stall holders, obtaining legal agreements and putting aside the prevailing individualism of the market. “From that moment, no changarín would negotiate their pay alone” he said. It means that now the workers charge for their work on a fortnightly basis, something that allows them a certain amount of stability, gives them an outlook, and means they can plan their finances. They renegotiate their cost per crate with stall holders every six months, and through a social small taxpayers scheme they have access to insurance and pension contributions.
Another important aspect of the cooperative comes about if any of the workers are ill: it set up a solidarity fund for the benefit of the changarín’s family if a valid medical certificate is presented. The same fund is also used to grant loans for family micro-businesses or home improvements. “Improving our quality of life was one of the reasons why we set this up. It’s a fight against individualism”.
Just over five years ago, a classroom was opened at the market which became the only adult secondary education centre allowing semi-attendance in the country. “Education changes lives. Training and knowledge are like light - the more you have, the more you can see. This year we’re focusing on the restoration of rights, for colleagues to see that they are empowered workers”. The classroom is fully equipped with computers to provide a course for between 50 and 70 adult workers.
Following this same model, IFICOTRA is working with the Instituto Nacional de Asociativismo y Economía Social (INAES) (National Institute of Associativism and Social Economy, in English) to ensure that all changarines working in markets across the country leave informal work behind to set up their own worker cooperatives. They are also continuing their fight for the retirement age of 55 to be recognised, due to the high level of risk and precariousness working at the market entails, as well as forming a strong trade union. “Changing informal labour to associative ways of working is, for us, a revolutionary transformation”.
International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and
Service Producers' Cooperatives
Secretariat: C/O European Cooperative House - avenue Milcamps 105
1030 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 2 543 1033, fax: +32 2 543 1037