In Argentina’s busy San Lorenzo port complex, the workers’ cooperative is putting families first
by Kristie Robinson
After 16 years on the job, Mario Zok maneuvers the L90F wheel loader confidently in front of the tower of soy flour, scooping up a pile in the 7m3 bucket and carrying it to the grill in the floor where a belt will take it up on to the boat that is filling its 56,000-tonne load.
As a member of the General San Martín Port Workers’ Cooperative, Zok is part of a thousand-person team responsible for ensuring that the ships are loaded quickly and efficiently in San Lorenzo, home to one of Argentina’s biggest port complexes. More than 85% of the country’s crop and oil exports pass through the terminals, which work around the clock to keep up with demand from the booming agricultural sector.
“Our task is the daily job of moving things around, on to boats or trucks, and every year the demand in the terminals is higher,” Zok explains.
Last year, the cooperative transported 6.3m tonnes of products on to boats for export using their 98 Volvo machines, 79 of which are L90F wheel loaders.
From a young age, Zok, who is now 36, had dreamed of working for the cooperative and operating one of the wheel loaders, like his father, Pedro. “Since I was really young I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps, and here I am,” he laughs.
“My dad always told me about his job and I used to imagine it when I was little. When I had the chance to work alongside him, he taught me a lot, showing me the tricks of the trade, and helping me to put into practice the things he had told me when I was young.”
His father retired in March after 35 years working for the cooperative at the ports. For the last 18 years of his career he had operated Volvo wheel loaders, ever since the cooperative invested in their first L70s back in 1996.
Zok also started out working with L70s. “The first time I operated the wheel loader it was wonderful. Apart from the adrenaline, the visibility – the wide panorama that you have from up there – was a really nice experience.”
However, he admits that the L90F he currently operates is more efficient. “The new machines can move products faster, and are more comfortable inside, so you don’t get tired operating them. And everything has been modernized, so I feel more confident operating it.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Recognizing the central role the port plays in San Lorenzo’s economy, and in an attempt to encourage more workers’ children into the cooperative, in 2009, it opened Argentina’s first School of Operators. Dubbed the ‘Port Workers’ University’, it teaches the trade of port work, prioritizing the training of the cooperative members’ families.
As Herme Juárez, president of the cooperative, explains: “We want to give the next generation a chance, so we give preference to taking on the families of those who are already working with us.”
It is the only enterprise in Argentina that has this policy of conserving jobs between family members, something that can be a lifeline in a country where economic shocks and high unemployment are common.
In some cases, the cooperative is now working with the third generation of families, as Gustavo Casas, manager of key accounts in Argentina and Uruguay for Volvo CE, explains: “Year upon year there is a renewed commitment between the cooperative and its members’ families. In many cases, today’s operators are the children of the cooperative’s first members. And in some cases, the grandchildren are studying in the School of Operators. It’s really admirable on a social level.”
Juárez puts what the cooperative has achieved since it was formed in 1961 in simpler terms: “The idea of the cooperative is to cooperate – with families, with workers’ children. But the next generation is not all port workers – some are training to be lawyers, some to be doctors. We help our workers’ children, be it to find internships and training, or with educational support, whenever we can.”
IN SAFE HANDS
Zok, who has three children, is keen for them to follow him in working for the cooperative.
“I would love my children to follow in my footsteps. I already tell them a bit about my job and I can see there is interest, so it’s possible that one day one of them might want to operate the machines.”
However, he admits that his 15-year-old son is most interested in joining the cooperative’s team of mechanics and electricians who keep the machines in such good condition through their preventive services that the first four L70C wheel loaders are still in use at the terminals.
As such, the cooperative may lose an operator but gain a member dedicated to ensuring that the machines his grandfather once operated continue to keep up with the rhythm of exports that work at the San Lorenzo docks demands.