Argentina’s spiraling crisis affects all sectors. From formal company workers to civil servants, all groups feel in some way the high inflation and, now, the cuts made by Javier Milei’s government. But a portion of the population was hit in a stronger way: those who work in the popular economy.

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Dina Sánchez is general secretary of the Union of Workers of the Popular Economy (UTEP). Peruvian, she went to Buenos Aires at the age of 15 and today is one of the main organizers of the popular economy in Argentina. To the Brazil in fact, she states that, with the cuts made by Milei’s government, some demands became priorities. The first of them, the food emergency.

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“Our sector is fighting for a food emergency to be declared in Argentina, because the purchase of basic necessities is now a privilege in Argentina. Buying meat, vegetables, dairy products is a privilege that the humble sectors don’t have.”

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“For this reason, we believe that this immediate emergency is important and that food reaches community restaurants now,” she says.

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Cuts and more cuts

The popular economy has been part of Sánchez’s life since leaving his last formal job at a supermarket chain. According to herself, the need to guarantee income and food for her children led her to the popular economy. Sanchez defines the popular economy as work that involves everyone outside the formal system. Whether it’s a street vendor, artisan, or collector, more than 10 million people work in the popular economy in Argentina. Of this group, around 1 million are organized under the umbrella of the Union of Workers of the Popular Economy (UTEP).

In the interview, she said that, since the Argentine president took office, the situation has worsened and people living informally have lost a large part of their benefits and have been excluded from government social programs. Income that fluctuates from month to month becomes more inconstant without aid and hunger has increased.

“The middle class is selling their car to reach the end of the month, withdrawing their savings, spending their savings. Some sectors adjust, instead of going out to eat every weekend, they go out once a month. And more humble sectors are choosing between paying rent or eating. We have companions who today cannot guarantee daily milk for the children in their homes. The children eat once and at night a mate cooked with bread and go to sleep,” she told the Brazil in fact.

Since taking office in December last year, Javier Milei has been cutting benefits to thousands of people. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), around 70% of children are below the poverty line in the country. The Argentinean executed only 24% of the budget allocated to supplying popular kitchens, one of the main works carried out by the organized popular economy. Worse: in February, the government zeroed these resources.

According to Sanchez, the increase in poverty and the cut in benefits lead to a vicious cycle that places the population in an increasingly vulnerable situation.

“Today the demand from people looking for community restaurants has increased a lot, but the food is not available in these places. Children will become destitute. And the main people affected are women, children and retirees. Today we are seeing many grandparents waiting to take food to their homes in popular restaurants,” she says.

The organization of an unregistered sector is UTEP’s main difficulty. Sanchez says that, firstly, there is a difficulty in understanding that the popular economy also generates work and that organizing a popular restaurant can also be a source of income. According to her, even during Alberto Fernández’s administration, the government did not give due importance to the popular economy and did not help organize these works because it understood that the path would be to seek full employment.

“There is an idea that the popular economy cannot be the solution, but full employment. For me, the right debate would be: we have a reality, what do we do with it? These 10 million people don’t work, so what do they do? The popular economy can be a way out. In Argentina, no one can give themselves the right not to work,” she said.

Demands and achievements of the popular economy

After almost 13 years of struggle, UTEP grew and began to articulate itself and maintain a permanent dialogue in national politics. One of the things that Dina Sanchez is proud of is having representation in Congress and local Assemblies. Militancy on the streets and entry into conventional politics led to a series of achievements for people outside the formal job market.

Starting with the 2016 social emergency law, which was valid until 2019. The text determined basic assistance for those outside the job market, in addition to the creation of a Popular Economy and Supplementary Social Wage Council, responsible for raising demands and create policies specifically aimed at workers in the popular economy.

For Sánchez, however, with the cuts made by Milei’s government, some demands became priorities. One of the tools to guarantee minimum family consumption would be the universal basic wage. According to Dina, the demand that emerged during the pandemic extended until 2024 due to the unrestrained increase in prices in the country.

“During the pandemic, some organizations that are part of UTEP called for a universal basic salary and many said “like a universal basic salary”. The pandemic arrived and what was the message? Stay at home, because if you go out you could be infected. People who don’t have a guaranteed salary every month had to choose between starving to death or leaving home and dying too. And that need is still valid.”

Pressure on the government

In previous governments, UTEP had an established dialogue channel with Casa Rosada. Under Javier Milei’s management, the terms are different. According to Dina, the relationship with the Minister of Human Capital, Sandra Pettovello, is very conflictive and the only way to express demands is through demonstrations and demands on the streets.

At the same time that the sector takes a stance on the particularities of people who work in the popular economy, UTEP also needs to react to government measures. First, there were protests against the bus law – a package of hundreds of economic measures that seeks to drastically reduce the State’s participation in the Argentine economy. The original project had more than 300 measures that pointed in this direction, but the text approved in the Chamber ended up with just under 200 articles and will still be voted on in the Senate.

Another package of ultraliberal measures presented by Milei were the Necessity and Urgency Decrees (DNU). Composed of a series of legislative measures that allow the Executive to legislate without going through the traditional rite of Congress, the package was defeated in the Argentine Senate also after facing street demonstrations. For Dina, the position of the movement was fundamental in these defeats.

“We built this fight collectively, but we also carried out multisectoral construction to reach a general strike. The CGT calls on all sectors and we carried out a general strike which was very good, which showed our position in a resounding way. If Congress disapproves the DNU, it means that Argentina can have hope”, says Dina.

For her, Argentina will only retrace a path towards economic recovery and inclusion of different sectors with the end of Javier Milei’s government.

“The only way out [para essa crise] This is the end of this government. I don’t believe that Milei intends for the situation of the most impoverished sectors to change. She is a character that corporations put in place to benefit sectors that are used to taking the biggest piece of the pie. All of Milei’s policies have a bad impact. They do not benefit the popular sectors”, he concludes.

Editing: Rodrigo Durão Coelho


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