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ARGENTINA: Women Build New Opportunities in Cooperatives

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 23 2011 (IPS) - Forged in the 2001-2002 social and economic crisis, cooperatives in Argentina are becoming a fast track to women’s participation in what were traditionally regarded as male spheres.

“At first it was difficult for men to accept women as co-workers on building sites, but now that we have joined cooperatives, they are getting used to us being there,” Roxana Jiménez told IPS.

Jiménez is the president of the Federation of Worker Cooperatives in the province of Santiago del Estero, in the northeast of the country, which has more than 800 members. She also belongs to a construction cooperative made up of 10 men and six women.

“Now women’s presence is seen as normal; people have seen that women are fast learners, not only for construction but also electricity, plumbing, laying ceramic tiles and anything else that’s needed,” Jiménez said.

Her cooperative is hired by local governments in the province for infrastructure works, as well as for private sector projects.

Workers’ cooperatives were promoted by the Argentine government in 2003 in response to the soaring levels of poverty and unemployment resulting from the 2001-2002 severe social and economic crisis, which followed three years of recession.

To start with, the state encouraged the formation of 50 cooperatives with 16 members each, to give unemployed people training and jobs. As many of the men who joined them did not know the trades, they learned them alongside women.

Cristián Miño, president of the Florencio Varela Federation of Worker Cooperatives (FECOOTRAUN), was unemployed in 2003. Now he not only has work but leads a movement of 600 members, a “social enterprise” as he calls it.

Miño told IPS that in the 3,000 cooperatives that have come together in the National Confederation of Workers’ Cooperatives (CNCT), between 35 and 40 percent of the members are women, who are playing an increasingly prominent role in the movement.

IPS carried out these interviews at the CNCT’s First National Meeting of Women Cooperativists, held in Buenos Aires Nov. 18-19 to share experiences on gender issues and women’s participation in cooperatives.

According to Miño, there are women-only cooperatives in at least four of the country’s provinces, but most are mixed, even when the type of work has historically been done by men, as in the case of construction.

“At first, men were reluctant to accept women, until they saw the women’s dedication. Now they have begun to include women as a key feature of the cooperatives,” he said.

“Because of the ‘machista’ attitude that so many of us have, we thought women would not be strong enough to do the same work as men, but in time, when we saw women carrying 50 kg bags of cement, we realised that indeed they were,” he said.

Cooperativism received a further boost in 2009 when the Social Development Ministry under centre-left President Cristina Fernández launched Argentina Trabaja (Argentina Works), a plan for forming 60-member cooperatives involving a total of 100,000 people.

The cooperatives work in areas like the textile, restaurant, horticultural, construction materials, food and printing industries, and their members earn a minimum income of 300 dollars a month.

The workers also receive the universal child benefit, amounting to 64 dollars a month for each child under 18 who stays in school, in addition to health care and social security contributions to ensure a future pension.

According to a 2010 study by the ministry, half of the cooperative members are women, and they all previously had difficulty getting jobs. A total of 79 percent had not completed their primary and secondary education, and 77 percent had no trade or job training.

The cooperative movement has also provided job opportunities to sexual minorities traditionally excluded from the labour market, such as transvestites and transsexuals, who were also present at the meeting.

Lohana Berkins, a transvestite, is the head of the Nadia Echazú textile cooperative and school, operated and managed by transvestites and transsexuals. She told IPS that they started a transgender organisation five years ago, and their group now has 60 members. There are also another four cooperatives doing different kinds of work.

“We have trouble getting jobs, but not for the same reasons as people who become unemployed and then can’t get work again. In our case it is because of issues of discrimination and exclusion,” Berkins said.

In 2006 they formed the Nadia Echazú cooperative and applied to the government for training and tools. “We don’t assess our results in economic terms, because that isn’t what is most important to us,” she said.

“What we value is the impact this has on our community, because we transvestites do not see prostitution as proper work; we want to generate debate with the state and society and show that we can have a real job,” she said.

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