Bolivia’s New Style Work Force

Bernarda Claure

LA PAZ, Apr 30 (IPS) - The May 1 Labour Day marches in the Bolivian capital were a memorable sight two decades ago, a real celebration of workers' unity, led by thousands of helmeted miners carrying their drills. But today the workers' movement is a shadow of its former self, and the present generation of workers, out of necessity, are dispersed in new kinds of occupations.

Self-employed workers, small and micro businesses, workers in illegal sweatshops, garbage-pickers who classify and sell whatever can be recovered, street vendors -- in short, all the components of the informal sector of the economy are now a major part of the work force which Bolivia's leftist government is endeavouring to learn about and support.

Figures from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) indicate that in the 1970s, Bolivia's state-owned mining company (COMIBOL), then the country's main employer, had up to 60,000 employees. Today, mining companies employ no more than 15,000 workers.

The informal sector, on the other hand, where workers are unregistered and neither contribute to nor receive social benefits, currently employs 83 percent of the working population. The public and private sectors employ the remaining 17 percent of workers, the deputy minister of micro and small business, Ramiro Uchani, told IPS.

The hugely important informal sector mushroomed as a result of mass unemployment generated in the 1980s by the free-market economic policies espoused by the final administration of the late Víctor Paz Estenssoro (1952-1956, 1960-1964, 1964, 1985-1989), and by privatisations in the 1990s.

Today the results of that process can be clearly seen, said sociologist Jiovanny Samanamud, of the Bolivian Strategic Research Programme (PIEB), who has studied micro businesses in El Alto. About 20 minutes by car from La Paz, El Alto depends almost entirely on the informal economy and is Bolivia's second largest industrial centre.

"For the last 20 years, Bolivians have not only had to find work, but basically create their own jobs within the margin of opportunity allowed by our country's economic and employment structure," he told IPS.

That structure is based on free hiring and firing, measures introduced in 1985 by Paz Estenssoro in line with the free-market "neoliberal" model.

Consequently, even in the formal sector wages are between 60 and 100 dollars a month, and few employees see more than five years' service in any given job. Most contracts are short-term, usually for three months, so 45 percent of the urban population of working age are essentially casual jobbers, according to the non-governmental Study Centre for Agrarian and Labour Development (CEDLA).

"Given the tendency to dispense with people under the terms of free hiring and firing conditions, with the failure to respect workers' rights that this implies, it's not surprising that the vast majority of the population unable to secure formal employment should have created other forms of work as their only option," Samanamud said.

An estimated 800,000 productive units are now operating informally. "Given that they employ on average three or four people each, we think it is time they were given official support," said Deputy Minister Uchani.

The urban unemployment rate for 2007 is forecast at 9.5 percent, according to CEDLA. This is lower than the rate for 2006, when it stood at 11.8 percent, and the similar figures for 2004 and 2005.

Although unemployment is therefore expected to fall this year, Bolivia still has one of the highest rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the average unemployment rate is eight percent, according to the International Labour Organisation's report on Global Employment Trends 2007, published in January.

And it still means that 261,000 people living in cities will be out of work in Bolivia, which has a total population of nine million.

The government of Evo Morales wants to support small and micro businesses so that they continue to create jobs. To that end, the Ministry of Production and Microenterprise was established.

It would seem reasonable to stop thinking of the informal economy as an economy "of the poor, for the poor," said Thomas Kruse, an economic analyst.

To lump together such a wide range of productive activities and social relations under the one heading of "informal economy" obscures more than it reveals, said Kruse.

Under that heading we find many unregulated processes, connected or isolated, vigorous or at their last gasp; part-time or temporary labour relations and family relations; payment in kind, in money, in information, effort or prestige; mutual reciprocity and networks that sustain huge turnovers, hierarchical chains of production and marked inequalities, he said.

Antonia Rodríguez speaks with the voice of experience. A micro entrepreneur, she founded the Bolivian Artisanal Association "Señor de Mayo" (ASARBOLSEM), made up mainly of women breadwinners in El Alto. Today the organisation exports designer wear, textiles and other crafts worth up to 20,000 dollars a month to European and North American markets.

Rodríguez, born in Potosí, in the southeast of the country, gathered 300 spinners and weavers in this women's association and organised them into production groups, in a process that began in 1989. After much hard work over many years, each member now takes home between 2,500 and 3,000 dollars every three months, an achievement that is entirely theirs, as they have received no state backing or support from any other organisation.

Efforts like these have resulted in the spontaneous restructuring of production over the last two decades, which has changed both labour relations and the character of the Bolivian work force.

The government intends to remove the stigma from the informal sector, increase its visibility and encourage its growth, Deputy Minister Uchani said. The Morales administration's Strategic Plan for Small Producers' Holistic Development 2007-2011 comprises four stages.

The first step is to find out more about the informal sector: how many people are involved, and what, how, and how much they produce. The second stage is to strengthen it by increasing the producers' professionalism and expertise, through the recently created National Service for Productive Development.

The third stage will be to offer financial services to foment production. The brand-new Productive Development Bank will offer credit to small producers on favourable terms.

The fourth step is marketing and promotion.

The success or failure of these methods remains to be seen, but it is unlikely that the May 1 marches will ever return to their former glory.

(FIN/2007)

Published at Inter Press Service


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