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To be a job-seeker in Buenos Aires

An introduction to unemployment in Argentina.

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