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Precarious Nature of Public Employment Facilitated Mass Lay-offs in Argentina

A group of demonstrators protest in the Argentine city of Rosario against the wave of lay-offs of public employees since President Mauricio Macri took office. Credit: Courtesy of

A group of demonstrators protest in the Argentine city of Rosario against the wave of lay-offs of public employees since President Mauricio Macri took office. Credit: Courtesy of

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 23 2016 (IPS) - Argentina’s new conservative government has already laid off 20,000 public employees since early December. Analysts have described the phenomenon as a “purge” of “militants” who supported the last administration, facilitated by the precarious employment conditions in the public sector, despite the steps taken to provide greater job stability over the last decade.

“What we have encountered is a state at the service of political activism,” said centre-right President Mauricio Macri, who took office on Dec. 10 after eight years of government by centre-left President Cristina Fernández and the four-year administration of her late husband Néstor Kirchner, both of whom belonged to the Front for Victory, now in the opposition.

The new minister of finance, Alfonso Prat Gay, said the state needed to shed some “militant fat” – an allusion to the supposed hiring of “Kirchnerist militants”.

A majority of employees of government ministries, state enterprises, and municipal and provincial administrations whose short-term contracts came up for renewal on Dec. 31 were laid off, according to the Social Law Observatory of the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA).

In many cases, the dismissed workers had been in their positions for five to 10 years, although they worked under temporary contracts.

In La Plata, capital of the eastern province of Buenos Aires, which is now governed by Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, 4,500 public employees were dismissed, and their protests were targeted by a police crackdown.

“The way we found out about the dismissals was traumatic,”one of the laid-off workers, Marcela López, told IPS. She worked for eight years for a municipal programme that helps the homeless, under a contract that was renewed every three months.

“When I got to my workplace one day, I discovered they had taken me off the payroll. They sent us to human resources, who told us we had been fired, although they didn’t say we were laid off – they said our contracts expired,” said López, who supports her family, including a disabled son.

The government argues that the laid-off workers were“ñoquis” – slang for employees who only show up for work on the 29th of every month, the day ñoquis (or gnocchis), classic Italian dumplings, are traditionally eaten in Argentina.

But Lópezand many other laid-off public employees say they can prove that they had good work attendance records.

“I think the ñoquis business is a longstanding phenomenon that has to do with the way politics work here,” she said. “I don’t think that trying to fix this problem is a bad idea. But they can’t just throw everyone into the same category. Especially not those of us who do work, and who turned a (social) programme into a public policy.”

Julio Fuentes, a leader of the ATE public employees union, said that if the government really wanted to root out those who “collect paychecks without working, no one would come out to defend these people.”

“But that would have to be done on the basis of a serious analysis, with the participation of the trade unions and guarantees that arbitrary measures will not be taken,” Fuentes, who is also the president of the Latin American and Caribbean Federation of Public Employees, told IPS.

In different government offices, employees have complained that they have been asked who recommended them for the job, and that they have been questioned about their professional and educational background. Some protested that their social network profiles were searched for signs of political activism.

Despite a 15 percentage point drop over the last decade, 35 percent of the population of Argentina still works in the informal economy, like Daniel Reynoso, who supports his family selling dusters on a busy street in central Buenos Aires. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Despite a 15 percentage point drop over the last decade, 35 percent of the population of Argentina still works in the informal economy, like Daniel Reynoso, who supports his family selling dusters on a busy street in central Buenos Aires. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

“Is the state in a position today to carry out an exhaustive, systematic assessment of the situation of public employees,when official statistics do not even exist, and there is no office dedicated exclusively to the systematic compilation of information?” Gonzalo Diéguez, director of the Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth’s (CIPPEC) public administration programme, remarked to IPS.

According to the ATE, the government’s argument is an excuse to justify indiscriminate dismissals and shrink the state, as part of its adjustment plan.

These arbitrary measures, Fuentes says, were made possible by the precarious nature of public employment, the result of neoliberal labour flexibility measures adopted in Argentina in the 1990s.

“For a long time we have been complaining in Latin America, and in Argentina in particular, about informal employment or so-called ‘junk contracts’, which are basically ways used by governments to get around the constitution, which guarantees job stability for public employees,” he said.

Argentina, Latin America’s third-largest economy, has a total population of 43.4 million, an economically active population of 19 million,and an unemployment rate that according to official figures stood at six percent in the last quarter of 2015 – a figure considered unrealistically low by independent experts.

According to Fuentes, of the 3.9 million state employees, some 600,000 work under different kinds of temporary contracts, and many of these enjoy no social protection whatsoever.

Of these 600,000, 90,000 work in the national administration and 510,000 work for provincial or municipal governments, without counting outsourced services, “another way to get around guarantees for public employees,” he said.

To justify the lay-offs, the government also points to how much the state has grown.

An as-yet unpublished CIPPEC study reports that between 2003 and 2015, the number of public employees rose 55 percent, in the central administration, decentralised state bodies and public enterprises.

In that period, six ministries, 14 decentralised bodies, 10 new state-owned companies and 15 new universities were created.

“Public employment grew because the state also grew, along with its organisational structure. Today the state provides a number of goods and services that it did not previously offer,” Diéguez argued.

Fuentes said that despite this growth, the recovery in the number of public sector jobs was “absolutely insufficient” after the “dismantling” of the state that began with the broad privatisation process launched by former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999).

“The number of public employees is not excessive. There are shortages of public employees, such as nurses, or professionals in all areas,” the trade unionist said.

In his view, the new government thinks there are too many public workers because “it believes in a discourse that no one believes in anymore: that the market is going to regulate economic activities and run a country.”

Fuentes said that what were recovered in the last decade were “good quality jobs with poor quality contracts.”

The problem, he said, is that the public administration has increasingly depended on workers with flexible labour contracts, “who are easily fired, which turns them into political hostages.”

Over the last decade, some six million jobs have been created in Argentina, 19 percent of them in the public sector and the rest in the private sector, where roughly 10,000 people have been laid off as well, according to trade union sources.

Informal employment has also shrunk, from 50 to 35 percent, according to the latest figures. But four million people, especially the young, still work in the informal economy.

“Above and beyond the government’s political decision on whether or not to renew contracts, the underlying issue here is the informal nature of public employment,” said Diéguez.

This, he said, is aggravated by the state’s hiring practices, which are not based on public competitions but on contracts that depend on “changes of political stripe.”

He said the previous administration made strides in formalising public employment.

But the big pending challenge, he argued, is to avoid a repeat of cases such as the mass lay-offs that occur when there is a change in the party in power. And when a new administration takes office in 2019, “there shouldn’t be a review of contracts, or if there is, it shouldn’t look like a witch hunt,” he added.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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