Argentina: Jobless Protests Block Highways, but Fail to Block New Labor Law

Article excerpt

Picketing jobless protestors, or "piqueteros," blockaded Argentine roads in February, even as the Chamber of Deputies passed a labor-reform law that piqueteros found inadequate. The protests by the unemployed have drawn less support than they enjoyed during the economic collapse of 2001-2002 but constitute the first major social movement President Nestor Kirchner has had to face.

Two hundred to three hundred protestors from the Movimiento Independiente de Jubilados y Desocupados occupied the front steps of the Labor Ministry for several days and conducted a hunger strike to call for the reinstatement of 252,000 "social plan" stipends the government had recently removed, with the understanding that the beneficiaries of the assistance programs had found work or no longer met the requirements to continue receiving assistance. A social plan equals 150 pesos monthly, or US$51, for each unemployed person who demonstrated their condition as such.

The government made it clear that its policy would be to give no more assistance but to replace the stipends with genuine jobs. This policy led piqueteros to block dozens of roads to Buenos Aires and other cities, frequently frustrating commuters on their way to their own jobs.

While polls show that unemployment is a top concern among Argentine adults, the links between the jobless and the middle class are nowhere near as powerful as they were during the period of opposition to President Fernando de la Rua (1999-2001). Economic vigor has returned to Argentina, which experienced an 8.4% growth rate last year, bringing unemployment figures down a few percentage points and somewhat mollifying the middle-class "pot-bangers" who brought down de la Rua.

Although road-blockade protests disrupted daily life and resulted in a few incidents of reported violence, as shown in a video of one piquetero attacking a taxi diver, the government was able to negotiate a truce with the piqueteros in the first days of March.

Labor law of "bribes" partially reformed

A labor law that passed four years ago with the suspected help of massive bribes was reformed at the beginning of March, although some socialist and labor leaders thought the reforms of the new law were inadequate. The Bloque Piquetero Nacional, led by the leftist Partido Obrero, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Labor Ministry to eliminate the flexibilization aspects of the previous reform law, arguing that they did not foment job creation but instead worsened the conditions of the labor market.

Nonetheless, the Chamber of Deputies passed it with a 215-23 vote while the Senate approved it 65-1. The law, originally passed in 2000, allowed employers to keep their employees on a six-month probationary period and increased "labor flexibility" with the argument that fewer employment protections would generate more jobs.

The new law passed this month reduced the probationary period to three months and increased severance pay, but it reduced the social security contributions required from employers in companies with less than 80 employees.

The government said the initiative had been designed in consultation with interested sectors of the economy, and central labor councils expressed their agreement with the law, but chambers of commerce demonstrated against it, saying it would make hiring new employees "more expensive."

The ex-secretary of the Senate, Mario Pontaquarto, revealed to Justice Department officials that a total of US$5 million in bribes were paid to at least a half-dozen senators who approved the labor flexibility law in 2000. He and three others, ex-senators Jose Genoud and Emilio Cantarero and former secretary of intelligence Fernando de Santibanes, are being prosecuted for the crime. …