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To be a job-seeker in Buenos Aires

An introduction to unemployment in Argentina.

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.