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LABOUR-URUGUAY: Stitching a Future Together

Luis Alberto Carro

ROSARIO, Uruguay, Jul 5 2009 (IPS) - The group of women cross this Uruguayan town every morning, some on bike and some on foot, on their way to CODEMUR, a women’s cooperative that resurrected a garment factory abandoned by its owners.

The women, all between the ages of 40 and 60, are former employees of the once vibrant textile firm Sirfil y Drymar. After the companies closed the local plant without paying the employees the back wages and holiday and severance pay they were owed, some of the women created CODEMUR (Rosario Women’s Cooperative).

After the factory workers were laid off in 2007, the owners began to cart off the merchandise, fabrics and other materials. So the women decided to occupy the plant, and informed the Labour Ministry that they would attempt to get it running again, following in the footsteps of other worker-run factories.

The members of CODEMUR now take turns occupying the old factory in shifts, to keep the owners from selling the machinery, and producing garments and running their new workshop.

Because the women cannot yet use the old plant as the case is still making its way through the courts, they found a new place to work.

CODEMUR’s large workshop, with picture windows facing the street, began to operate in January. Located two blocks from the main street in this town of 9,500 people in southwestern Uruguay, it was rented to them by local businessman Jaime Goldansky, who gave the women their first order, of work uniforms.


“The companies buy their winter uniforms before (the southern hemisphere) summer is over. So we’re a little behind, but we’re working, which is what matters to us,” says an optimistic Cristina Perdomo, spokeswoman for CODEMUR, as she explains to IPS how this local experiment in the solidarity economy is working.

For now the workers co-op is only producing work uniforms and shirts, because “the machines that we have aren’t suitable for working with finer materials. We plan on buying other machines, but that will take a while,” says the 57-year-old textile worker, who like a number of other members of CODEMUR is drawing on more than two decades of experience in the industry.

In response to IPS’s question “What is it like to work without a boss?” Perdomo responds: “You learn.”

“The hardest part was organising ourselves,” she says.

“We still have to work other jobs, as seamstresses, or cleaning houses, because we can’t yet get by on what we make here,” she adds.

Perdomo gives a wry smile when IPS asks what happened to the owners of Sirfil y Drymar. “We never saw them again…Once in a while they send a lawyer,” she replies.

“They never imagined we’d really take over the factory. They must have thought that we would give up and pull out, but here we still are – at least some of us. We want to get the money we are owed, and we have not thrown in the towel.”

Boom, collapse and occupation

Sirfil y Drymar ran the garment factory that operated for several decades on an 8.5-hectare plot of land, with 4,000 square metres of buildings, along national route number 2 in the southwestern province of Colonia around 140 km from Montevideo, the capital of this small South American country sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil.

With a workforce of around a hundred workers, almost all of them women, the factory produced blue jeans, felt garments of all kinds, jackets and other fine apparel. In its years of splendour it distributed merchandise around the country and exported mainly to Argentina, Chile and the United States, says Perdomo, who worked for the company for over 20 years.

Sirfil y Drymar, which was based in Montevideo, had a chain of shops in Uruguay’s main towns and cities, where its exclusive clothes were sold. To keep up with the orders, the workers sometimes had to work several shifts in a row, including “entire days” or “nights where the temperature dropped to three degrees (Celsius),” Perdomo recalls.

In 2003, a flood prompted the companies to move production to the building where the Uruguayan Aluminum and Tin Factory (FUAYE) had operated before it became one of the many industries that closed down in the 1990s, when neoliberal free market policies opened up the economy, leaving abandoned factories scattered around the country.

One of the places full of abandoned warehouses was Rosario, one of Uruguay’s oldest towns. Founded in 1775, Rosario was a hub of development for much of the 20th century, with aluminum and tin factories, car battery plants, tanneries, furriers, and clothing manufacturers.

The recession in Uruguay, characterised by steadily shrinking real wages, rising unemployment and an expansion of the informal economy, culminated in the mid-2002 financial meltdown that followed the late 2001 economic collapse in neighbouring Argentina, with which Uruguay has strong trade ties.

Against that backdrop, Sirfil y Drymar appeared to be an exception to the rule, as the two companies survived the economic woes sweeping the region. But the boom came to an abrupt end.

The company, which argued a “loss of markets,” was also displeased with the growing protests by the Rosario factory workers who, although they were not organised in a union, were demanding the payment of back wages and other financial obligations.

Sirfil y Drymar responded to the workers’ complaints with layoffs until “they paid us only half of our holiday pay in 2007 and the rest of the money from our wages never appeared, so we decided to occupy the factory,” says Perdomo.

The occupation was backed by local trade unions and by the PIT-CNT, the country’s trade union federation.

The women’s biggest supporters and advisers were trade unionists Luis Romero of the Funsa tire manufacturing company and Daniel Placeres of Envidrio, which produces glass bottles.

Funsa closed its doors in 2002 and reopened as a worker-run factory in 2006, in partnership with a private investor. Envidrio is a workers cooperative whose members – former employees of the Cristalerías del Uruguay company – occupied the plant when it went under in 1999 and began to produce again six years later with the aid of an agreement with the Venezuelan government.

“By contrast,” says Perdomo, “we did not feel supported by the union in our industry.” She was referring to the Sindicato Único de la Aguja, the garment workers union.

“At the beginning they were helping us, but after that we were left on our own, maybe because they didn’t believe our struggle had any future,” she says.

Self-management

The families of these determined women gradually began to “accept what we were doing, although more than once they asked us why we continued occupying the plant if we weren’t going to get any of the money back,” she says.

In fact, many of the women did drop out of the struggle as it dragged on without results.

The local residents of Rosario, meanwhile, were divided between those who supported the women out of solidarity and those who said “we should quit making trouble, and that if we wanted to work, we should go and wash dishes,” as she heard once on a local radio station, Perdomo recalls with bitterness.

The women began to understand that they had to transform their protest into concrete proposals.

“A PIT-CNT colleague in Colonia (the provincial capital) put us in touch with Romero and Placeres, and the seed of our cooperative was sown – a totally new experience for us,” says Perdomo, who is visibly moved by the memory.

At the request of the former Sirfil y Drymar workers, the courts granted Funsa custody of the machinery in the plant. “We are absolutely responsible until the workers start working in their new locale,” Romero told the provincial newspaper Noticias in October 2008.

In Uruguay “there is a deeply rooted cooperative movement and a general legal framework and special laws,” says researcher Alfredo Camilletti in his study “Empresas recuperadas mediante la modalidad de Cooperativas de Trabajo” (companies recuperated by workers co-ops).

The national government of the left-wing Broad Front coalition has offered business management courses, provided by the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining.

“They helped orient us,” says Perdomo.

Colonia Mayor Walter Zimmer, of the right-wing National Party, also decided to provide the women with assistance through the Office on Promotion and Development, offering training courses in design and business administration.

In his study, Camilletti, with the University of the Republic of Uruguay, says that in this country municipal governments and the judiciary have encouraged and supported the workers co-ops, to help them recover back wages and other debts. But the co-ops, he adds, are still waiting for legal rulings backing their demands.

He says the cooperative members complain that “Everything moves so very slow.”

Looking around the ample workshop where CODEMUR is now operating, Perdomo says “there are only eight machines here. We’re not asking for handouts. We want to work, so please don’t forget about us, don’t leave us on our own.”

 
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