Uruguay’s largest dairy co-op is struggling to find a solution to a conflict between its producer owners and its employees.
Conaprole is the country’s national co-operative of milk producers, owned by over 2,500 farmers who have been receiving the same amount per litre of milk for the past four years.
The co-op employs 3,500 workers, who have seen their salaries increase by 34% over the past four years. Another raise in January means a 50% increase compared to four years ago.
Now the producers are calling for higher incomes and put pressure on the board and the executive of the co-op while the worker council is asking for salary increases and using strikes.
The crisis is exacerbated by the lack of demand from Venezuela, one of the key buyers of Uruguayan cheese in the past. The country has failed to pay for some of the products bought from Conaprole. The dairy sector has also suffered by the global fall in milk prices.
Conaprole is the country’s main exporter, and around 75% of its production goes abroad. But in 2015 the co-op was unable to export anything for six months. It lost 39m pesos, with the cost absorbed by the producers. But the strikes mean the co-op itself is now losing millions.
The workers work six and a half hours, six days a week and get paid 57,000 pesos per month.
On the other hand, around 1,000 of the milk suppliers – mostly family farms – earn 31,000 pesos per month, which often includes the cost of employing other people and maintaining their farms. Around 400 producers did not get paid because they owe more than they earned from the co-op. Around 300 have not been paid at all for two years, leaving them in debt.
Although Conaprole pays the highest price on the market for milk to its producers – at 10.4 pesos per litre – some producers have left; however, others joined leaving the production levels the same.
However, at national level, around 100 dairy farmers have decided to quit the industry in recent years.
The co-op’s president told local publication El Pais that the margins do not allow it to increase the price paid to producers or give in to the workers.
The employees want a 13% increase in bonuses for senior employees, a change in holiday policies and a salary review. The co-op refuses to agree to these changes unless the trade union agrees to sign a peace deal for three years, which the latter refuses to do. The co-op also argues that senior employees are already receiving 10 times more than other workers and that salaries have already been reviewed recently.
minister met with representatives from the co-op and will also engage with employees in an attempt to mediate the conflict.