ARGENTINA: A dockworker cooperative is happy to share the load in one of Argentina’s busiest ports
by Kristie Robinson
“It could be worse. You could be loading bags on to ships in the port,” is the oft-heard reply when somebody complains about their job in Argentina. But in one cooperative, the dockworkers stand proud when talking about their profession, many having followed in their father’s footsteps to work the docks. And thanks to mechanization, the back-breaking work of loading bags is a distant memory.
Lying on the banks of the Paraná River, 550km upstream from the Atlantic Ocean is Rosario, Argentina’s second city and home to San Lorenzo, one of the country’s biggest and busiest ports. Some 85% of the country’s crops, oil and by-products pass through San Lorenzo and the ports of Greater Rosario. Argentina was once referred to as “the breadbasket of the world”, and with agricultural exports booming, this is no small business.
With the series of port terminals stretching more than 50km, and working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the shipping companies need quick and efficient partners to dispatch their cargo.
That role is fulfilled by the 1,000 workers of the General San Martín Port Workers’ Cooperative. Herme Juárez, president of the cooperative since 1969, is a man with an unmatched understanding of the docks business, and the important role the port of San Lorenzo plays in the local community. “The town moves at the rhythm that the port dictates,” he explains.
HISTORY OF COOPERATION
Juárez started out more than 50 years ago, working as a stevedore, loading and unloading the boats as they docked He is a man with the vision of an entrepreneur, but with the heart of a unionist. After experiencing the marginalized and exploited reality of the dockworker, and seeing how his and his fellow workers’ efforts often went unrewarded, he started organizing the cooperative and its 45 members.
“You are born in this life to do things. And so we started to,” he explains.
His aim was to give the dockworkers – then regarded as “third- or fourth-class citizens” – a better way of life, as well as providing an efficient service to the companies that use the port. The workers toiled hard, winning over more clients, and the cooperative soon started growing.
In 1996, Juárez realized that if they were to incorporate machines, they could load boats a lot more quickly, and so the cooperative secured a credit to invest in 10 L70C wheel loaders. The decision would mark a milestone in the cooperative’s history, allowing it to grow exponentially.
“Due to the speed at which we can now load the boats, we are saving our clients hours of navigation. Even three or four hours faster, is three or four hours more time to navigate,” Juárez explains.
TIME IS MONEY
However, the time saved would not be measured in hours, but in days. Before mechanization, it would have taken 20 days to load a 56,000-tonne boat in miserable conditions; using the wheel loaders cut the time to 72 hours. And at today’s rhythm, with the recent incorporation of 10 more L90F wheel loaders with 7m3 buckets – bringing the total to 79 Volvo machines, mainly wheel loaders – the same vessel can be loaded in little more than a day, with each machine moving around 800 tonnes an hour.
Last year, the cooperative loaded a record 6.3 million tonnes of goods on to boats in San Lorenzo and Greater Rosario. The dockers take pride in providing an unmatched service to the port. And such is their satisfaction with the wheel loaders, at their end-of-year parties and other celebrations, there is always an L90 present – its bucket filled with ice and champagne.
Juárez sees their Volvo machines as an integral part of the cooperative family. “We have achieved everything we have with Volvo – but obviously the Volvos don’t drive themselves, they are operated by people.” And people always come first. There are many occupational hazards in dock work, but “people over profit” is the rule by which any decisions are made, particularly with regard to worker safety.
Gustavo Casas, manager of key accounts in Argentina and Uruguay for Volvo CE, says it is a privilege to work with the cooperative: “With its vision and prioritization of its workers, the cooperative is an ideal partner for Volvo CE – they are an example of what Volvo CE looks for in clients.”
One particular example of the job the workers undertake is the loading of agricultural products on to conveyer belts that carry the products on to the ship. One warehouse, where four wheel loaders work, houses 180,000 tonnes of soy flour, piled 40 meters high.
Operator Pedro Fydrizswski explains: “We use the machines to push the flour through a grill in the floor on to a conveyer belt which takes it to the boat.” The job used to be particularly dangerous, as the towering mountains of tightly packed flour, which could have been sitting there for as long as a month, are prone to loosen unexpectedly, causing an avalanche of flour on to the machines and workers. While the incorporation of wheel loaders had reduced accidents by 95%, the workers wanted to go further.
So the team of mechanics at the cooperative came up with a solution: for the past three years, operators have been using a crane extension on the front of the wheel loader to help loosen the products they are moving. This was entirely designed and constructed by the cooperative’s workers, and has further helped improve worker safety, as the machines no longer have to work so close to the edge of the flour ‘cliff’.
Better safety means improved efficiency and more profits for the cooperative, which have been channeled into both social and community outreach projects, as well as further safety improvements, the most recent of which is a new emergency rescue center. Complete with helicopters, ambulance boats, and land ambulances, the center is the first of its kind in Latin America, and was developed specifically to deal with the occupational hazards of dangerous port work.
Juárez, who could have retired long ago, is a visionary who has an insatiable desire for better results, believing they can continue to improve workers’ lives. And he is certain that Volvo will be an integral part of the cooperative’s future, saying the next move may be to add some L120s with 12m3 buckets to his fleet. “But only if the belts can keep up.”