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ARGENTINA: Cooperatives Successfully Combat Chronic Unemployment

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 30 2005 (IPS) - Cooperatives in Argentina have successfully taken on the daunting task of drawing chronically unemployed men and impoverished women who have never worked outside the home into the world of work.

“We thought the solution to unemployment was creating sources of work, but the question is much more complex than that,” Carlos Chile, the head of the Territorial Liberation Movement, told IPS.

His group started out as a housing cooperative and evolved into an efficient construction company that now wins tenders for public projects.

“Reinserting an unskilled unemployed person, or someone who has been without work for 10 years, is a task that takes at least six months,” Chile told an auditorium full of activists from different civil society groups meeting this week in Buenos Aires in the First Permanent Forum for Social Housing.

“Your typical unemployed man lacks discipline,” said Chile. “He watches TV late into the night, gets up late, sleeps in the daytime. We’re talking about people who are poorly fed, who are not in shape for physically taxing jobs, and in their zeal when they begin to work again, they fall sick or get injured more often.”

Four years of recession that culminated in a late 2001 economic collapse left 54 percent of Argentina’s 37 million people submerged in poverty and 24 percent of the economically active population unemployed.


Since the economy began to get back on its feet, poverty has fallen to 38 percent and unemployment to 12 percent this year.

However, the latest statistics indicate that although economic growth has remained steady, the poverty rate has begun to decline at a slower pace.

Most of the government’s development programmes do not include the poorest of the poor or the chronically unemployed, and social policies have largely been welfare-based.

“We would like to know if the state would be willing to finance the six months that are required for reinsertion” into the labour market and society, said Chile, issuing a challenge in the forum, which was also attended by representatives of the centre-left government of President Néstor Kichner.

Chile’s observations arose from his Movement’s experience in creating the Emetele Cooperative of Housing, Credit and Consumption.

The cooperative is now completing construction of 11 apartment buildings on the south side of the Argentine capital, on a lot purchased with a loan from the City of Buenos Aires Housing Institute.

The complex is being built by 250 formerly unemployed people, all of whom are in line for one of the apartments once they are completed. But in order to qualify for one of the units, they must be able to prove that they are able to pay off a mortgage.

In the cafeteria, where they take their breaks, the workers receive healthy, abundant food.

“I would like to ask the bank employees how they felt the first time the workers from the cooperative went to withdraw their wages. I’m sure they were trembling. Since our guys didn’t know how to get their money out, they felt like kicking open the automatic teller machines, with which they were completely unfamiliar,” said Chile with a smile.

The wages drawn by the members of the cooperative are in line with the going rate, and almost seven times the small monthly stipend that the state extends to unemployed heads of households. In addition, women hold 40 percent of the jobs, working not only in the cafeteria, but also as bricklayers and electricians.

“With the tradition of the husband as provider broken down, it was the women who went out to work, so in our cooperative, if there are two candidates with similar qualifications, the job goes to the woman,” Chile explained.

He said the state spends millions of dollars in subsidies for companies to build affordable housing at the cost of luxury units, which later turn out to have hidden defects. The authorities then beneficently turn the new housing units over to families that are not always capable of maintaining them, he criticised.

Chile said the cooperative’s aim goes far beyond building houses or apartments: “It involves the construction of a new culture, which brings our members happiness once again.”

Similar challenges are faced by the members of another cooperative. Las Antenas emerged in the early 1990s in La Matanza, a working-class district of Greater Buenos Aires, to fight for access to land. Today the cooperative has built 250 housing units and has won several contracts to renovate and refurbish public buildings.

“We used to live in overcrowded slums, isolated from society,” Hugo Molinas, the president of the cooperative, said at the forum. “The construction projects were an excuse to return to a culture of work.”

“In our neighbourhood, the young people were raised with unemployed fathers who couldn’t even remember their trade, and with drugs available on every street corner,” said Molinas. “We wanted to change all that by changing our habitat.”

To do that, the cooperative receives financing from the state to build each housing unit in six months and pay the members meagre wages.

But the members of Las Antenas, who now have skills and experience, are able to build the units in just two months, which means the surplus funds can be used to pay higher wages.

The members of the cooperatives admit that it is not only a question of being willing to work and take part in the projects. Training is also essential.

“Our people haven’t even gone to high school, and we had to organise courses to teach them how to run a cooperative, because the quality of the institution we created depended on their training,” said Molinas.

Chile also noted that the Emetele cooperative trained the unemployed in skills that were needed for the construction projects – as plumbers, carpenters, electricians and administrative staff.

The participants in the forum also heard about the experience of the 25 de Marzo Cooperative, which built nine blocks of housing in Villa 20, a slum in the southwest Buenos Aires Lugano neighbourhood. Five years ago, the cooperative members won title deeds to the land they had occupied, and began to build proper houses.

On the same spots where their shacks stood, they built modest but comfortable two-story houses. “We didn’t want to build shoeboxes. So far, we have built 170 decent houses,” an enthusiastic Marisa De León, the administrator of the cooperative, told IPS.

De León pointed out that the construction work generated not only jobs for people whose wages were paid by subsidies from the government office of Social Promotion, but also motivated local residents to learn new trades and set up small businesses. To illustrate, she showed photos of women working in carpentry, making furniture, doors and windows.

The cooperative also paved the streets of the neighbourhood, which used to turn into a muddy quagmire every time it rained. In addition, the members obtained piped water, sewage services, cooking and heating gas, and improved street lighting.

“Our people are not only building a house,” said De León. “They are building a great experience. The housing units are just an extraordinary excuse.”

 
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