1 November 2016
In Argentina worker cooperatives have breathed new life into several trade networks such as Red Gráfica (Graphics Network, in English) and Red Textil (Textile Network, in English) to stand united against common challenges.
Red Gráfica is a second-level associated worker cooperative established in 2006 bringing together over 30 cooperative graphics companies in Argentina. Red Gráfica promotes competitiveness and social and economic sustainability amongst its cooperative SME members. Working towards this goal, the network encourages the integration of production, the implementation of business management tools, training, innovation, and creativity, along with promoting solidarity, democracy, and responsibility. “We were born from solidarity, from the joint fight from graphics unions and cooperative federations. Working in isolation we couldn’t compete: working together we try to stand united against common challenges”, said José Orbaiceta, one of the founding members of the network, at the International Summit of Cooperatives in Canada in October.
More than 40 cooperatives make up the cooperative network active in the graphics sector: half of them are members of the network, and the rest receive services as associate businesses – even although they aren’t direct members- they more than 900 associate workers across the workforce with a total turnover of 3,138,000 Argentinian pesos (around 200,000 USD).
In an interview with a cooperative magazine in Argentina, the network’s president, Placido Peñarrieta said “we were all buying from the same suppliers, almost the same things. So the idea was to join together to make one common purchase. We buy paper together and receive a volume discount. It’s also about sharing knowledge. There were workshops which had been dismantled, both administrative areas and technical ones, with people who were valuable to the labour market and who before wouldn’t have had any issues finding work. The majority of us who are left are older, and we decided to put up a fight, even though many of us have been left feeling hopeless about the labour market. Even if we’d receive compensation, we thought it would be humiliating to leave and not put up a fight against the business closing, the machines being auctioned off, and the warehouses lying empty. This conviction led us to look for ways it could carry on working. And just as any system needs its tools, we had to find a new identity as a cooperative, even if we didn’t even know what the word meant”.
That is why Red Gráfica Cooperativa offers services to its members: the implementation of business strategies, warehousing, production, research and development, human resources, training, strategic and operational planning, financing, sales and marketing, press, advertising and publications in the media, and others.
“Now we can say that we are at the same level as any other business, with the latest technology allowing us to print high quality materials. We do books, magazines, leaflets, posters, and it makes us want to all work together, to share and distribute the jobs” said Peñarrieta.
Another network, Red Textil, was set up in 2013, bringing together 72 worker cooperatives in Argentina with an emphasis on social textiles. The network is made up of a wide range of cooperatives, some of them with ample experience in the field, others which have come about as a result of social projects, some highlight the inclusion of often-forgotten groups of people such as those in prison or workers facing exclusion due to their sexual preferences, others are working towards the fight against slavery (a practice which is becoming more and more common in underground textile workshops), and lastly there are those set up by young people who have embraced cooperativism as an project for life and social transformation.
Victoriano Menchaca came to the Red Textil Cooperativa team to get away from personal tragedy. There, he found a group of people who helped alleviate the pain of the loss he had suffered. “I’ve always worked non-stop, I’ve always been the same. So I came to seek refuge in this to try to get over what happened to us”, he remembered. He used to work in an underground workshop in a Flores neighbourhood, until in 2015 two boys, aged 7 and 10 died. They got trapped in the basement of the property that was used as a workshop. They were his nephews.
Victoriano’s story is the most tragic of many similar ones in the textile world – a world which has seen businesses drive their costs so low that they have ended up practising slave labour. According to the Cámara Industrial Argentina de la Indumentaria (CIAI) (Argentine Industrial Chamber of Clothing, in English) there are 25 thousand people working informally, of which 5000 are working in slave labour conditions. The organisation has already exposed 112 clothing brands for slave labour and ill treatment of people across the country.
There are numerous examples of exploitation. Above all in textile firms working for multinationals. To try to redress the balance, Red Textil Cooperativa cooperatives prioritise the creation of genuine jobs with decent conditions, and work against underground workshops.
Behind the sewing machines are people, and social inclusion projects. At the Diseños de mi Pueblo (Designs from my Town, in English) cooperative in Vaqueros, Salta, members are proud to be making their own decisions: “We are a consequence of necessity. We didn’t have a clue about sewing or cooperativism, just the need to eat and have somewhere to live. And now I choose to be a cooperative member, for the freedom this space gives me”, said María Fernanda Marza, president of a women’s cooperative who got together to be able to take possession of some land.
The Pro Tejer Foundation states that the textile industry in Argentina creates 450 thousand jobs and turns over 3.5 billion dollars annually. And in a hostile working environment prone to precariousness and slavery, cooperatives working in the industry are creating genuine work for more than 1500 people in the 72 cooperatives making up the Red Textil Cooperativa.
Juan Gamarra was in prison for 14 years and there he met his colleagues from Kbrones. The textile cooperative set up by people in prison to give them a decent way into the labour market, had a key social role for Juan, introducing him to Red Textil Cooperativa where he works in logistics. “When I came I knew nothing about work, and much less about cooperatives. Now I know how to cut and I’m learning to sew. You need to know how to do everything here, that’s how it works”, said Juan. For him, as for so many, cooperativism was – and still is – a way of rewriting his story.