By Daniel Gutman
BUENOS AIRES, May 5 2023 (IPS)
Nearby is an agroecological garden and a plant nursery, further on there are pens for raising pigs and chickens, and close by, in an old one-story house with a tiled roof, twelve women sew pants and blouses. All of this is happening in a portion of a public park near Buenos Aires, where popular cooperatives are fighting the impact of Argentina’s long-drawn-out socioeconomic crisis.
“We sell our clothes at markets and offer them to merchants. Our big dream is to set up our own business to sell to the public, but it’s difficult, especially since we can’t get a loan,” Soledad Arnedo, a mother of three who works every day in the textile workshop, told IPS.
The garments made by the designers and seamstresses carry the brand “la Negra del Norte”, because the workshop is in the municipality of San Isidro, in the north of Greater Buenos Aires.“In Argentina in the last few years, having a job does not lift people out of poverty. This is true even for many who have formal sector jobs.” — Nuria Susmel
In Greater Buenos Aires, home to 11 million people, the poverty rate is 45 percent, compared to a national average of 39.2 percent.
La Negra del Norte is just one of the several self-managed enterprises that have come to life on the five hectares that, within the Carlos Arenaza municipal park, are used by the Union of Popular Economy Workers (UTEP).
It is a union without bosses, which brings together people who are excluded from the labor market and who try to survive day-to-day with precarious, informal work due to the brutal inflation that hits the poor especially hard.
“These are ventures that are born out of sheer willpower and effort and the goal is to become part of a value chain, in which textile cooperatives are seen as an economic agent and their product is valued by the market,” Emmanuel Fronteras, who visits different workshops every day to provide support on behalf of the government’s National Institute of Associativism and Social Economy (INAES), told IPS.
Today there are 20,520 popular cooperatives registered with INAES. The agency promotes cooperatives in the midst of a delicate social situation, but in which, paradoxically, unemployment is at its lowest level in the last 30 years in this South American country of 46 million inhabitants: 6.3 percent, according to the latest official figure, from the last quarter of 2022.
The working poor
The plight facing millions of Argentines is not the lack of work, but that they don’t earn a living wage: the purchasing power of wages has been vastly undermined in recent years by runaway inflation, which this year accelerated to unimaginable levels.
In March, prices rose 7.7 percent and year-on-year inflation (between April 2022 and March 2023) climbed to 104.3 percent. Economists project that this year could end with an index of between 130 and 140 percent.
Although in some segments of the economy wage hikes partly or fully compensate for the high inflation, in most cases wage increases lag behind. And informal sector workers bear the brunt of the rise in prices.
“In Argentina in the last few years, having a job does not lift people out of poverty,” economist Nuria Susmel, an expert on labor issues at the Foundation for Latin American Economic Research (FIEL), told IPS.
“This is true even for many who have formal sector jobs,” she added.
The National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC) estimates that the poverty line for a typical family (made up of two adults and two minors) was 191,000 pesos (834 dollars) a month in March.
However, the average monthly salary in Argentina is 86,000 pesos (386 dollars), including both formal and informal sector employment.
“The average salary has grown well below the inflation rate,” said Susmel. “Consequently, for companies labor costs have fallen. This real drop in wages is what helps keep the employment rate at low levels.”
“And it is also the reason why there are many homes where people have a job and they are still poor,” she said.
Social value of production
La Negra del Norte is one of 35 textile cooperatives that operate in the province of Buenos Aires, where a total of 160 women work.
They receive support not only from the government through INAES, but also from the Evita Movement, a left-wing social and political group named in honor of Eva Perón, the legendary Argentine popular leader who died in 1952, at the age of just 33.
The Evita Movement formed a group of textile cooperatives which it supports in different ways, such as the reconditioning of machines and the training of seamstresses.
“The group was formed with the aim of uniting these workshops, which in many cases were small isolated enterprises, to try to formalize them and insert them into the productive and economic circuit,” said Emmanuel Fronteras, who is part of the Evita Movement, which has strong links to INAES.
“In addition to the economic value of the garments, we want the production process to have social value, which allows us to think not only about the profit of the owners but also about the improvement of the income of each cooperative and, consequently, the valorization of the work of the seamstresses,” he added in an interview with IPS.
The high level of informal employment in Argentina’s textile industry has been well-documented, and has been facilitated by a marked segmentation of production, since many brands outsource the manufacture of their clothing to small workshops.
Many of the workers in the cooperatives supplement their textile income with a stipend from the Potenciar Trabajo government social programme that pays half of the minimum monthly wage in exchange for their work.
“Economically we are in the same situation as the country itself. The instability is enormous,” said Celene Cárcamo, a designer who works in another cooperative, called Subleva Textil, which operates in a factory that makes crusts for the traditional Argentine “empanadas” or pasties in the municipality of San Martín, that was abandoned by its owners and reopened by its workers.
Other cooperatives operating in the pasty crust factory are involved in the areas of graphic design and food production, making it a small hub of the popular economy.
The six women working at Subleva Textil face obstacles every day. One of them is the constant rise in the prices of inputs, like most prices in the Argentine economy.
Subleva started operating shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, so it had to adapt to the complex new situation. “They say that crisis is opportunity, so we decided to make masks,” said Cárcamo, who stressed the difficulties of running a cooperative in these hard times in Argentina and acknowledged that “We need to catch a break.”