The Guardian December 4, 2002


Argentina: Workers took over factory 12 months ago

by Pablo Waisberg

Last December, overwhelmed by debt and the country's economic chaos, the 
Brukman brothers left their high-end suit factory in Buenos Aires and never 
returned. They also left more than 100 employees waiting for back pay. In 
the streets, Argentinians were protesting against economic measures imposed 
by then-President Fernando de la Ra (1998-2001), who declared a state of 
emergency, then resigned amid a political and economic crisis. Jacobo, 
Enrique and Carlos Brukman had suspended their workers' regular wages, 
which ranged from US$300 to US$500 a month, and were paying just a few 
dollars a week.

When payday came on December 18, the owners "told us we were crazy if we 
thought they were going to bring back the money they'd moved out of the 
country just to pay us," said Martnez, 48, an employee for 10 years who was 
a representative of the workers at the six-story plant.

Then the owners walked out. "We didn't know what was going to happen, but 
when the state of emergency was lifted, we hung out a banner that said, 
`Factory taken over'."

More than 50 factories whose owners have declared bankruptcy or shutdowns 
have been taken over by employees anxious to keep their jobs.

When employees take over a plant they usually form a co-operative and ask 
the government to expropriate the building and equipment. The government 
then rents them the infrastructure. More than 5000 workers are estimated to 
be working at such plants.

Worker-managed plants include bakeries, printing companies, chicken 
producers, meat packers and manufacturers of tractors, ceramics, plastics, 
metalwork and textiles.

Only 56 of the Brukmans 115 employees remained at the plant. The majority, 
46, are women. Limited by the small staff and a court order that prevents 
them from selling wholesale, they can no longer produce the 150 suits a 
week that the plant used to manufacture.

They also lack official legal standing, so they cannot issue receipts, 
another obstacle to large-scale sales.

"But despite the legal prohibition, the judicial system can't change 
reality, and the reality is that these people are producing and selling 
retail in order to survive and earn a minimum wage", lawyer Rubn Tripi 
said.

"Their production doesn't put the factory's capital at risk. Besides, it's 
been proven that the owners abandoned the company."

Retail sales enable the workers to earn about US$110 a month. In a country 
where 5.6 million people  41 percent of the workforce  are officially 
unemployed or underemployed, that's an achievement.

They have also paid off the US$550 the Brukmans owed their gas supplier and 
an overdue electric bill of US$2063. While they've hung onto their jobs, it 
hasn't been easy.

"At first, we didn't know how to set prices or calculate costs, because all 
the administrative and sales personnel had left with the owners", Martnez 
said, recalling that the workers put a US$14 price tag on suits that cost 
US$110 to make.

Suppliers didn't want to sell to them because of the large debts left by 
the owners. The workers had to explain that they would pay cash for all 
purchases.

Little by little, they acquired the cloth they needed and learned the parts 
of the business they didn't know, from management to production.

"Things are different now, because there aren't as many of us and we no 
longer have a nine-hour work day", said Martnez, who is on the internal 
affairs committee. "We work 12-hour shifts and have to take turns sleeping 
at the plant. We can't leave it empty, because the police or owners could 
come at any moment."

After 11 months of running their own factory, the workers asked the Buenos 
Aires government to take over the plant.

City legislators, however, rejected the idea and suggested that the workers 
form a co-operative and request expropriation of the plant. The city 
government could temporarily expropriate the building and machinery and 
rent them to the workers.

After two years, the co-operative would be given a preferential option to 
purchase the factory. The Brukman workers, however, say they're in no hurry 
and will ask lawmakers to reconsider their proposal.

"Everyone chooses the way they want to do things", Martnez said. "We don't 
feel that we are the owners. We don't want to form a co-operative. We want 
the company to be taken over by the government, so we will become 
government employees at the service of the community."

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