Around 25,000 public sector workers have been fired in the last month and a half. The Indy investigates what’s behind the government’s intention to ‘trim down’ the State.
“I am not a ñoqui,” says 27-year-old Fernando Gaba firmly. The former usher and union representative at the Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK) was fired by the new authorities at the beginning of January along with 600 of his co-workers.
“It hurts. It really hurts because I studied arts since I was four years old,” he says. Gaba and his fellow despedidos had been working at the CCK since May 2015, when the centre opened. “We are professionals and we are working in the arts in every single field that made us the best for our job. We passed an extensive selection process, but it’s not on paper, it’s not a public process. We were all selected because our CVs are the best of the best.”
Ñoqui, or gnocchi, the popular potato-based pasta, is also a term used in Argentina for people who collect a pay cheque and are technically employed by the state, but don’t actually do any work. While the pasta ñoquis have retained their popularity in Argentina since Italians began settling here, the people allegedly cashing in on taxpayers money are not so fondly regarded.
Argentina is in the midst of a battle between workers and the State. Since coming to power in December, Mauricio Macri’s national government, as well as several provincial governors and mayors from across the political spectrum, have dismissed almost 25,000 state workers at the three levels of government from across the country, according to El Despidómetro, an initiative set up to monitor the situation. It is part of a ‘trimming down’ of the State, says the government — an effort to reduce the number of workers, and specifically to clear out ñoquis.
When Gaba’s contract ended on 31st December 2015, the new government renewed it. But at the start of the new year, he and 600 other employees were abruptly fired, he says. They found out in a tweet posted by the Head of Public Media, Hernan Lombardi, that read: “In the CCK 81% of the hires were made during 2015. Without exams and [with contracts signed] through universities. In December they were still hiring people.” The fact that the CCK only opened to the public in May 2015 does not seem to have been taken into account by Lombardi.
“The minister (sic) fired us all by Twitter,” says Gaba. “We discovered we are no longer workers by seeing his Twitter. In 140 characters. It’s disrespectful. It’s mocking.”But Gaba and the other workers at CCK are not the only ones who found themselves without a job at the start of 2016. The Ministries of Labour, Social Development, Interior, Justice, Planning, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, and Transportation have all fired employees as well, just to name a few. It is hard to keep track, as new dismissals are announced every day, the latest being nearly 500 employees at the Culture Ministry who found their names on a list and were denied entry into the building.
In total, 90 government organisations, ministries, and state-owned companies have fired staff. Companies such as ARSAT (telecommunications) and Aerolineas Argentinas have let people go, while municipalities like La Plata, Morón, and Quilmes have also fired people. Numbers range from six workers fired by the Neuquén provincial government, to 4,500 by the municipality of La Plata.
It is not just the executive doing all the firing – Congress led the way, with Vice-President Gabriela Michetti (who is also the president of the Senate) announcing almost 2,000 dismissals shortly after taking office in December 2015. Some of these had to be reverted, as the indiscriminate mass layoffs included pregnant women and disabled people.
In explaining the rush to fire Senate employees, Michetti said that many workers’ contracts were ended because they were hired during 2015 and that “it’s practically impossible to lay off state workers who have held their positions for over a year.”
When President Macri was running for office, he promised to review the contracts of state workers and promote a more streamlined public sector that wouldn’t employ workers who did not work.
“What we have encountered is a state at the service of political activism,” said Macri, whose administration estimates around 6% of state workers were hired as a political favour.
Few people would disagree with the need to fire State employees who get paid but don’t do any actual work. However, unions and workers’ representatives say this is not the case at hand: they claim that the overwhelming majority of the nearly 25,000 workers who have lost their jobs are not ñoquis.
Though the government said the University of Buenos Aires would do an audit to find who was a ñoquis and who was actually working, many workers lost their jobs before the review could even begin. This prompted further questions about whether the terminations were truly to clear out underperforming workers.
If the government was genuinely committed to rooting out people who “collect paycheques without working, no one would come out to defend these people,” says Julio Fuentes from the State Workers’ Assocication (ATE). “But that would have to be done on the basis of a serious analysis, with the participation of the trade unions and guarantees that arbitrary measures will not be taken.”
“Every time I talk about this I have tears in my eyes because it’s really, really been an act of love working [at the CCK],” says Gaba. “We work a lot more than our contracts ask. We work because we have the belief that all the people, all the city, all the inhabitants of Argentina have the right to access culture and the arts. And we saw that right before our eyes.”
But not everyone sees what Gaba saw.
Alfonso Prat Gay, the new finance minister, said in a press conference that the country needed to lose some “activist fat”, in a reference to the Kirchnerist activists allegedly hired improperly by the previous government.
“Ñoquis are part of the legacy. We found a state full of activists. We don’t want the state to be full of activist fat,” said the minister.
“This is not the reality,” says Pablo Sparato, assistant secretary to the Argentine Workers’ Union (CTA), of the government’s claims. The reality, he says, is that “the government’s attack on workers is symbolic, because they are justifying the dismissals by stigmatising state workers, calling them ñoquis. The reality is that they’re covering up the fact that the State is being taken over by representatives of multinational companies (…) They are designing a State which, instead of serving the people, will serve the big multinationals.”
Many have also interpreted Prat Gay’s comments as indicating that the firing is not to rid the government of ñoquis, but to rid it of people who have political allegiance to the previous government.
“I was fired because the new government is trying to clear out all the workers of the past government,” says Gaba. “It is a revenge because they were opposition to the previous government (…) We are suffering for politics, but we are workers —we are not politicians.”
Due to this sense of political persecution, which has been denounced by the unions, some State wokers have even taken to changing their names on their social media profiles like Facebook, to hide from the government.
“I had to do that (…) because in some places they request the workers to open their [social media] profiles and if you’re an active Kichnerist supporter, they fire you,” says Gaba. “If anyone tried to find me by my real name (now), they couldn’t.”
As early as 11th December, ATE urged Security Minister Patricia Bullrich “to end the arbitrary and persecutory attitude towards the workers,” as the union reported that many employees had been requested to disclose their “political, union, and ideological allegiances” to the new authorities.
Florencia [surname withheld at her request] is a 33-year-old lawyer who is finishing up a Master’s degree in Human Rights and a Diploma in Criminology. She has been working at the National Directorate of Human Rights, at the Security Ministry, since 1st May 2011.
The Directorate of Human Rights is responsible for creating policies for domestic and institutional violence, sexual diversity, and disability, among others. It also handles cases, petitions, and public policies that promote respect for human rights.
“On Monday 18th January, several of my co-workers tried to login to their computers, which they could not do because their username had been removed, so we called IT. After several internal calls, human resources confirmed that they could not enter their username because they would be fired.”
Florencia’s office lost 13 employees. The ministry lost 215. For her, the new government’s actions go beyond reducing State personnel. These actions, she says, are meant “to eliminate public policy.”
“They’re all random and the common discourse shared by both the government and the media is an … attempt at selling the public the idea that ñoquis are being laid off, while truly, they are firing workers and dismantling programs.” She adds that “on the other hand, it should be noted that 20 people were named permanent staff through decrees 248/2015 and 250/2015 [on 23rd December 2015], without the prior public selection stipulated by law.”
The mass layoffs have Argentina’s state workers’ unions —ATE, UPCN, and APL (which represents legislative workers)— up in arms. As new dismissals are announced, protests and strikes are organised.
“We are not going to allow the new authorities to create a State to guarantee the businesses of the big multinational [companies] (…) while at the same time reducing State functions that have more to do with responding to the everyday needs of the people,” says Spataro. “We’re going to oppose [the dismissals] because we think that we have to not only defend jobs, but we also have to defend a State that serves the workers and not the companies.”
Some progress has been made. In La Plata, where 4,500 workers were fired at the end of the year, they protested in the street until police released tear gas and fired rubber bullets at them. On 26th January, the municipal government announced it would re-hire 2,600 of them. The secretary general of the government of the municipality of La Plata, Javier Mor Roig, said in an interview with Radio Provincia that the workers would “remain in the positions they had and if necessary will be shifted to another task at hand.”
Today, being the 29th day of the month (a day in which it is traditional to eat gnocchi), several protests will take place around the country. In Buenos Aires, CCK workers have organised a cultural festival in support of the dismissed workers, while other organisations have called for rallies and “ñoqueadas” (where they will serve gnocchi) at the obelisk, Congress, Almagro, Villa Urquiza, Haedo, Moreno, La Plata, and even Rocha, in Uruguay.
The mass layoffs of the last month and a half have also served to highlight a problem that is endemic to the State in all its levels, and which predates the current government: the precarious conditions in which State workers are hired and the vulnerability they face in these situations.
Many workers have ‘junk contracts’, which don’t give them the job security they are entitled to. These contracts are temporary and often get renewed on a yearly basis. Fuentes estimates that around 600,000 state workers out of 3.9m have some kind of temporary contract.
In the case of the CCK, Lombardi said that another reason behind the firings was the bad contracts 85% of employees had, which they got through arrangements with national universities. “Even though it’s great that universities have agreements of this kind, they can’t be unofficial employment agencies,” he said.
“Lombardi is saying that we are guilty of signing a bad contract, but it’s not our fault,” counters Gaba. “It’s the fault of the past government that hired us in shitty conditions.”
Gaba was technically employed by a public university, which paid him, but the university received funding from the state to do so. It is a confusing system and it does not do nearly enough to protect workers’ rights. “In this way, the people pay their own health insurance and their own retirement pay,” he explains.
Going forward, all hiring for the National Public Administration will be carried out by the newly created Ministry of Modernisation, headed by Andrés Ibarra. This gives almost complete control to the ministry by requiring all hiring, contract renewals, and extensions to be approved by it. Ibarra’s ministry will also review the contracts of 24,000 public employees to see whether they should continue working or join the thousands of people who have already lost their jobs.
But the reality is that there are still almost 25,000 Argentines without work now. And unless the government’s hiring practices change from short-term contracts that give workers scant security, mass layoffs will continue to be a possibility.
For Gaba and the thousands of his fellow unemployed workers, the prospect of not returning to work is grim. He is surviving off of savings and his partner’s help. His full-time job has become trying to regain his old one.
“I’m fighting for all my comrades and all my co-workers because some of them have not the abilities to express what they’re feeling right now,” he says. “Some of them have to take care of children or the need to have work in anything until we got our jobs back.”
Requests for comment to the Modernisation Ministry were not returned.