Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

On precarity in Argentina

I´m quickly learning that most work is precarious in Argentina. Let me quickly describe a few of the labour realities that have led to the precarization of most sectors of society here.

A few statistics concerning the increasing precarization of life
First, the sobering realities for Argentina's workers post-Dec. 19/20, 2001 (official figures compiled by James Petras & Henry Veltmeyer, Las privatizaciones y la desnacionalizon de America Latina, Promoteo Libros, Buenos Aires, 2004):
- In 2002, the most chaotic year of the post-1990s economic chaos in Argentina, it wa estimated that 18.2 million Argentines, or 51.4% of the population lives under the poverty line. A large part of this extreme pauperization of Argentina began in the early months of 2002: Between Jan. and May of 2002, 3.2 million Argentines fell bellow the poverty line - that's 762,000 per month or 25,000 per day! While these drastic numbers have now stabilized a bit, poverty and indigence remains at historical highs for a former affluent country like Argentina (see my Sept. 22, 2005 post).
- In 1997 Argentina's average yearly income was U$S 8,950. By 2002 it had fallen to U$S 3,197.
- The mostly middle class city of Buenos Aires saw it's citizens' average monthly income suffer a drop of almost 60% in 4 months, from U$S 909 in Dec. 2001 to U$S 363 by Mar. 2002. The working class saw its income drop from U$S 626 to U$S 250 in the same time frame. For pensioners, their monthly cheques went from an average of U$S 437 to U$S 175 in greater Buenos Aires. The poverty line in Argentina is now at U$S 400 per month.
- In 2002, most of the working classes in greater Buenos Aires found themselves earning salaries and wages below the poverty line. In the city of Buenos Aires, 60% of the working sector found itself below the poverty line in 2002.
- In 1974, Argentina's top 10% of income earners monopolized 28% of the nation's wealth. In 1992, 34% of the wealth. By 2001, more than 37% of the nations earnings remained within this percentile of the population. In contrast, the poorest 10% of the population received 2.2% of the nation's wealth in 1974 and a measly 1.3% by 2001, just before the massive increase in unemployment. Given that the wealthiest classes in Argentina tend to under-report their income, Petras & Veltmeyer (2004) point out that the Argentine government estimates this wealth disparity to be even more marked than the official numbers indicate. As such, some official estimates place Argentina's wealthiest 10% with incomes that are 40 times higher than the poorest 10% and suggest that Argentina's wealthiest 10% control more than 80% of the nations entire wealth!

More examples of precarious life in Argentina
Much of the working population works either entirely or in part "en negro" (literally, "in the black"), meaning that they're paid "under the table" and their work activity is not recorded. Those that work en negro of course do not make pension contributions nor do they receive unemployment insurance, holiday pay, or health benefits. They also do not have union representation (although one of Argentina's most important historians, Pablo Pozzi, told me that there is a group of metalurgical workers based out of Cordoba who are currently meeting to try and unionize en negro workers). Another huge sector of the working population is made up of contract workers that also receive no benefits and have little job security, living contract to contract. And yet a third group of workers - many making up the ranks of the now depleted working classes that stoked Argentina's once mighty industrial base - work in jobs that they are overqualified for and are therefore grossly underpaid. Many of these underemployed workers work en negro and often hold down two or three jobs. Those that do have the good fortune of still having a steady jobe look forward to paltry fractions of the pensions, health benefits, and unemployment insurance they should be receiving.

Most workers that do receive an official salary (today making up about 12% of Argentina's total economic output, compared to 49% during Peron's first two presidencies between 1946 and 1955, the other 88% of the pie going to multinationals, large corporations, and government activity) have only a portion of their salary (between 25-50%) officially recognized for calculating benefits. This portion of one's salary is called "el basico de convenio" (Pozzi, 2005). That is, most people here only claim a portion of their income, the rest of their income is considered extra pay and, thus, is not recognized as a regular part of their salaries. While it is true that these additional add-ons to one's salary are non-taxable for most, importantly, they are also portions of one's income that don't factor into calcualting benefits such as unemployment insurance, retirement plans, and health benefits. Additionally, and literally overnight, the buying power of salaries fell by more than 60% when the peso was readjusted at a level of 3-1 to the US dollar after the "convertibilidad" policy of 1-1 was scrapped in 2002. This, coupled with the subsidization of many low salaried positions by Argentina's "planes trabajar" (welfare plans instituted during the crisis of 2002 by former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde), caused a general "flattening" of wages (Pozzi, 2005). This wage flattening is, in essence, a subsidy for businesses, reducing their variable costs of doing business and transferring the burden of Argentina's economic recovery onto the dwindling middle and working classes while Argentina's medium, large, and multinational enterprises continue to record huge profits in many instances (Pozzi, 2005; Petras & Veltmeyer, 2004).

Also, secure jobs with any type of regular and long term pay are becoming scarcer in Argentina and are rarely advertised, especially in the intellectual, administrative, or service sectors. This is compounded by the fact that nepotism abounds here still. Unless one is well connected, many - like my cousin who is a graphic designer - spend years looking for a steady paycheque after graduating from high school or university. My cousin, for example, took five years after graduating from one of Buenos Aires's best private universities to find a secure job that guaranteed her a decent income with benefits. "Freelance" is a commonly used word here. Moreover, there are millions who are underemployed and chronically unemployed. While the official unemployment rate is officially around 12% [EL CLARIN], this number, however, does not include the 10-20% that are receiving planes trabajar, those that have given up looking for work, and those that are underemployed. In Argentina, losing your job any time after your mid-40s pretty much guarantees that you'll most likely never find a similar job again. Age discrimination is a way of doing business here.

And, while the piqueteros have taken their unemployment quagmire to the streets, their demands - except for the the most radical and autonmous MTD factions - usually don't extend beyond asking for more subsidies (from $150 pesos a month to $350). These planes are not initially distributed to individuals but to umbrella organizations such as political parties, partisan municipal workers, and MTD organizations which then take on the job of distributing the welfare subsidies to its members. Usually kick-backs and political favours are involved. Because of this institutionalized clientelism, an entire mafia-like distribution system of welfare dependence and work-for-welfare has emerged that links the welfare plans to political entities. In addition, this clientelistic distribution system concentrates much economic and political power in the hands of a few welfare distribution managers, political parties, and government and union officials that regularly recieve kickbacks from the distribution of the the planes trabajar, turning the planes into political currency useful for exchanging political benefits to those individuals and organizations seeking power or already in power.

Here are a few more quick tastes of why working life is precarious in Argentina:
- Example: The average salaried worker makes around $800 -$1000 pesos, the average wage earner makes $500 - $700 pesos. The poverty line is somewhere between$500 - $600. An average rent is around $200 - $400 pesos.
- Example: University professors at the hightest levels get around $87 pesos a month per course taught (yes, you read right, $87 pesos, or around U$S 30!) Most professors and sessionals (called "adjuntos") teach about 4 courses per semester on average in addition to working in committees, publishing, going to conferences, etc. Thus, professors must subsidize their income with other jobs such as private teaching, private research, etc. Here, publish or perish has being taken to new lows. Many professors and sessionals leave Argentina and teach elsewhere. This has caused a dire brain drain here. Also, most intellectuals, except for the most committed left radicals, tend to be politically conservative or centrists, something one would expect from a cadre of intellectuals doing research for private corporations, government institutions, lobby groups, or state bureacuracies.

These are only a few examples of why I believe we have to think about precarity much more broadly here in Argentina than how the concept is framed when doing political economic analysis of immaterial labourers or minimum-wage earners and contract workers in the global north. Most of the working class in Argentina - be they wage earners, salaried workers, freelancers, contract workers, immaterial labourers or the underemployed - are living in some sort of precarious work/life condition. And one can't think of precarity here without thinking about the connections to the neoliberal structural adjustments and sellout of the 1990s, machista culture, the connections between race and class (still very visible here), the present and historical role of repression in Argentinean socio-political life, the sharp distinctions between Buenos Aires as the economic-cultural-political "centre" of power and the rest of the nation as the dependent "periphery" (very much in the Innisian sense), the frustrations related to the failed promises of attaining first world status, and the acceptance of "assistentialist" culture by many under and unemployed (Flores, 2005). Perhaps, then, Argentina, a once powerful industrial giant with a committed working class, offers an early look at the precarious future in store for other developed and developing economies in the thick of contemporary neoliberalist forms of capital accumulation.

These are things that I'll be writing more about over the next few months.