To be a job-seeker in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES — One of the more alarming measures of the economic crisis in the United States has been the number of states breaking 10 percent unemployment. But in Argentina, such numbers aren't news: Here, double-digit joblessness has been part of everyday life for years.

More than a tenth of Argentina's labor force was without work from 1994 until 2007, and the number peaked above 20 percent in 2002 after the national economy crashed. Since 2007, the rate has never fallen below 7 percent, which is about where the government says it now stands. Official statistics put the unemployment rate at 7.5 percent at the end of 2008 — a counterintuitive decrease from previous levels at a time when many would expect the Argentine economy to share in the job losses taking place worldwide.

But there are signs that the global crisis is coming to Argentina.

A government survey found that job offers dropped 30 percent in the last quarter of 2008. So just as job lines are growing in the United States, you can't walk too far in Buenos Aires without finding yourself at the tail end of one. Laid-off security guard Victor Lopez, for example, recently waited in an hourlong line to apply for another position in the field he's worked in for a decade.

"If I don't get this job, I'll have to do something else — maybe sell things on the street, or anything else, depending on the economic situation here," Lopez says.

What Lopez is saying is that if he's unlucky, he might end up like another Victor Lopez (no relation) who earns about $10 a day trying to sell knick-knacks at stoplights. For this latter Lopez, there has never really been any other way to make a living. "I've been selling on the street for practically my whole life," he says. "It costs more to get a stable job. And they don't want to pay the salaries."

Informal workers like this Victor Lopez constitute a gray area of employment in Argentina. Often referred to as "trabajo negro," or the "black market of jobs," they're unregistered by the tax bureau and therefore somewhat invisible to the official picture of Argentina's labor market. But they're all too visible on Argentine streets.

The "cartoneros" — scavengers who recover and sell paper, plastic, glass and aluminum to recycling plants for a few dollars a day — are a classic example. Their ranks are said to have exploded tenfold after the 2001 crisis here.

Fausto Spotorno, chief economist for investment analyst Orlando J. Ferrero & Associates, notes that during the purported job growth of recent months, "employment growth was drive[n] by unregistered workers, while registered jobs fell by 30,000."

This puts Argentina in good company. A study released on March 8 by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that more than half of the world's labor force works under the table.

Aside from street vending and scavenging for recyclables, another major form of unregistered work is "changa": odd jobs like washing dishes, helping on construction sites or cleaning houses. This is the kind of unsteady employment that predominates in Buenos Aires' slums.

Eking out a living in a slum whose streets leak raw sewage, Yannet Apudaca and her husband earn all of their 200 pesos per month — about $55 — from changas. She guesses that four out of five residents in her neighborhood are also so-called "changuitos." The pay is poor — they might make less than $10 for a 14-hour workday — and the work isn't secure.

"Sometimes you go once a month, sometimes once a week,” she says.

And that frequency has fallen. Her only steady employer, a restaurant, hasn't paid her in months. And the construction industry, where her husband found most of his work, was one of the first to grind to a halt when the economy slowed.

Things aren't going to pick up for them soon. The government announced last month that in January the national economy grew only 2.3 percent over a year prior, the worst published growth rate for any month in six years. Most private economists believe the rate is even lower.

Economists at the Foundation for Latin American Economic Investigations (FIEL) say that the sudden drop in GDP growth, together with the observed rise in real salaries in many sectors, is consistent with the initial reduction of unemployment seen in the official numbers. But unfortunately, according to the FIEL's assessment, it also heralds the onset of a deep recession, and rising unemployment to come.

In a country with a history of unemployment, it's not surprising that jobless residents have, over the years, developed ways to make their grievances known. In good Argentine form, Miguel Quintana — who was laid off from his job at a mattress factory last November — and perhaps a thousand other unemployed workers took to the main avenues of Buenos Aires in recent weeks, waving signs and chanting slogans demanding jobs and money.

This sort of protest has its roots in the crescendo of joblessness that took place in the late 1990s, when unemployed workers gave birth to Argentina's particular form of the "piquete," a phenomenon that took its name from the American picket line.

Instead of the usual labor unions that bargain with particular employers, these are generalized organizations of unemployed persons that block public roadways and occupy buildings. The piquetes climaxed after Argentina's last economic crisis, and today the term "piqueteros" is synonymous with these unions of the unemployed.

The government itself is clearly concerned about the employment situation, despite its assurances. Several months ago, the chairman of the ruling Peronist party and first gentleman Nestor Kirchner (his wife is Argentina's president) directed companies to "not touch a
single job."

Now the government is directing more than $16 million to bolster the salaries of some 38,000 workers. In return, the 648 beneficiary companies — which the government said deserved subsidies because of a decline in sales — have agreed not to lay off workers or cut salaries.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Argentina:

Argentina's anti-Semitic past

The rise of Argentinian wine