THE FUTURE OF WORK IN A HISTORICALLY VOLATILE ECONOMY: CASE STUDY OF FARM MACHINERY FACTORIES IN ARGENTINA.

Author:Pineda, Yovanna
 
FREE EXCERPT

In January 2018 at the World Economic summit, Chair of the G20 and Argentine President Mauricio Macri called on the world to view Argentina as a model for other emerging economies during its Fourth Industrial Revolution. (1) He optimistically discussed his agenda for the "future of work," including investment in education and training in the latest technological developments to maintain human capital and reduce poverty. (2) When Macri first assumed power in December 2015, Argentina was enjoying relative economic success, with rising GDP, increasing employment rates, and decreasing poverty levels, which fell from 30.3 percent of the population in 2016 to 25.7 percent in 2017. (3) In May 2018, however, Argentina experienced yet another major economic crisis. Severe drought destroyed crops and negatively affected soy exports, subsequently forced a reduction in public spending, and along with high inflation, led the value of the Argentine peso to fall, losing half of its value against the dollar by September 2018. (4) By October, surveyors found that the Argentine population was losing hope, believing the current crisis could turn into another devastating economic crash such as the one in 2001. (5) There was a silver lining, however. Fearing an economic collapse, owners and workers cooperated, and most people continued to work despite the crisis.

Given the frequency of crises, should we still look to Macri's promise to position Argentina as a model to sustain the future of work and provide quality jobs? The answer lies in understanding what it is behind the scenes that permits a volatile economy to remain the second largest South American economy and an important G20 member with the capacity to export and promise food security. (i) In spite and because of the crises of the 1980s, and especially after Argentina's economic collapse of 2001, grassroots changes to the structure of work came from an array of small-scale entrepreneurs, popular and labor organizations, and workers, including those leading the empresas recuperadas por los trabajadores (enterprises recovered by their workers). (6)

My exploratory research shows that despite social, political, and economic crises, small-scale farm technology factories adapted to reduce disruptions to their work and continue production. I conducted 50 interviews in-person and by email, and maintained contact via social-media messaging services. (ii) Drawing on interviews with different social groups across different classes from eight farm machinery factories in Santa Fe province between 2016 and 2018, this article illustrates how deep social and economic crises brought these groups together to reach "common good" decisions. (7) I visited five of the eight factories in San Vicente, Santa Fe. I argue that these groups developed both explicit and intuitive common good practices to reduce work disruption and keep factories operating. (iii) In this case study, a common good approach helps us understand groups and individuals who check their self-interests for the sake of sustaining work in an environment prone to frequent crises.

In a post-neoliberal world, studies about Latin American development and the future of work will be constantly evolving. (8) In a broad sense, the "future of work" may become a post-capitalist alternative of hybrid capitalism. Henry Veltmeyer's "social economy" comes to mind, which is an alternative to capitalist development and hybrid capitalism, including a social and solidarity economy owed to "a long history of cooperative movement" and diverse community responses to crises. (9) In my study, the factory groups chose to work for the "common good" to sustain work-life patterns and preserve their "lifeworld." Jose Itzigsohn and Julian Rebon use the "term lifeworld in the phenomenological sense of the 'taken-for-granted' subjective world of the individual." (10) Similarly to responses by workers in the study by Itzigsohn and Rebon, male and female respondents in my study believed that factory work was not only a source of income, but more importantly a source of identity and pride." My interviewees were not rejecting the notion of a market economy or capitalism. They expected to work well together to maintain production, make profit, and compete in domestic and international markets. They were aware that they needed to work together and be creative to sustain dignified work for the benefit of all in the factory.

In the following sections, I first discuss Argentina's economic cycles and how that has affected work in factories during the 20th century. Second, I examine the post-2001 economy to show how factory practices have established a model for what the future of work could become. The paper concludes with some thoughts on why Argentina remains relevant to any discussion about what the future of work will look like, particularly for Latin America.

Economic Cycles and Domestic Factory Practices in the 20th Century

According to 2018 World Bank data, Argentina's annual GDP growth rate is projected to rise through 2020. Although it is on an upward trend, its pace is uneven and relatively unpredictable, as it has been since the end of World War II. (12) Going further back to the start of the 20th century Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Between 1860 and 1929, the country's GDP per capita grew more rapidly than any other country, including the United States, Canada, and Australia. (iv) By the 1920s, Argentina had become the fourth largest producer and exporter of wheat in the world and was among the leading global producers of corn and linseed. (13) This period of relatively stable growth (1861-1929), however, was followed by cycles of oscillating economic growth and decline. (v)

Similar to most Latin American nations, Argentina's economy has depended on its export sales to support its economy, and its reliance on environmental conditions and international markets partially explains the economy's long-term volatility during the 20th century. Beginning in the late 1800s, Argentina welcomed European immigrants to populate the country (the 1869 census recorded a mere 1.6 million inhabitants). (14) A rise in the rural population combined with extensive use of fertile grasslands known as the pampas allowed commercial crop farming for export to international markets; Argentina's primary export commodity was wheat, corn, and linseed before 1950. (15) Currently, although it has diversified its exports with items such as raw sugar, vehicle parts, and telephones, it primarily relies on agricultural productivity to support the export economy. (16) By 2016, commodities such as soybean meal, corn, and other agricultural products made up more than half of Argentina's exports. (17)

Given the importance of the agricultural sector, there was great demand for mechanized farm machinery and tools, particularly during cultivation and harvest periods to satisfy local and global demand for foodstuffs. Although foreign farm machinery took the lion's share of domestic markets, local blacksmiths or metal manufacturers supplied farmers with machinery, vehicles, and parts. They were critically important in the maintenance and repair of both foreign and domestic machinery. In several cases, they cannibalized old machinery or soldered new parts to extend the life of farm machinery. (18)

During the Great Depression and World War II, Argentine blacksmiths, repair shops, and factories in the interior and rural provinces of Santa Fe and Cordoba found ways to continue operating and maintain old machinery even though the economic decline had led to steel shortages or in some cases isolation from international markets and machinery. By expanding their know-how and learning-by-doing, they eventually developed their own farm machinery--especially harvest combines--to substitute for foreign machinery imports during periods of shortages. For instance, during the 1920s, the family-owned Senor Harvester Factory began offering repairs to sulkies (small two-wheeled tractors) and Ford and Deering tractor and combine models...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP