Women are playing a major role in the revolutionary Argentine workers' initiative of taking over factories that have been abandoned by their owners, and in so doing, rescuing jobs and salaries that seemed to have been lost forever.
"You can't cut off our water, we've paid all our bills," María Pino protests over the phone, while using her free hand to rifle through a stack of papers on a nearby shelf, searching for the file folder of receipts from the Aguas Argentinas water company to prevent a cut-off.
Pino has worked at the Grissinópoli baked goods company in Buenos Aires for 33 years. She was the "right-hand woman" of a succession of company presidents who ran the business from the height of prosperity into total ruin. Today, although she earns the same wages as the company's 16 factory floor workers, she holds the reins of this newly successful business, albeit one faced with the burden of old debts.
Grissinópoli is a member of the National Movement of Factories Recovered by Workers, a collective of roughly 80 companies formed in the late 1990s to group together bankrupted businesses that had been abandoned by their owners, but not by their employees.
The movement encompasses manufacturing and services industries hit by the four-year recession that began in 1998 and culminated in 2001 with the economic, social and political collapse that brought down the government of President Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001).
As well as factories producing everything from textiles, ceramics, glass and rubber to food and refrigerators, the network also includes transportation companies, educational facilities and even hospitals. Most are headed by men, but in some cases, the horizontal organizational structure has helped women move into leading roles.
One of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the world's governments in 2000 is to promote gender equality and empower women. But in this case, the progress achieved by women is not a result of a government policy. On the contrary, it was the women themselves who took control of the abandoned factories and other businesses and got them back on their feet.
The "recovered" factories are organized as cooperatives, with statutes and licenses to operate.
Legal permission to take over their operation was obtained by presenting viability studies to the courts handling the corresponding bankruptcy proceedings, or by applying to provincial legislatures to request their expropriation.
The salaries drawn by the workers are called "returns." Everyone earns the same wages, which are divvied up based on the income taken in that month. Decisions are adopted by majority vote in regularly scheduled assemblies.
The Brukman textile factory, abandoned by its owners in late 2001, currently employs 62 people, of whom 50 are women. Before the owners finally fled the heavily indebted company, it had reached the point where the women working there were paid a mere 5 pesos, or $2, a week.
The struggle to keep the factory from being shut down permanently dragged on from late 2001 to late 2003, and led to clashes with the police, forced evictions, and attempts to manipulate the protest for political purposes.
Finally, through successful organization and a series of appeals to the courts, the women were able to get the factory back up and running normally.
In the interim, three factory workers gave birth, and the other women raised funds to cover their medical expenses and maternity leaves.
Now each worker takes home around 600 pesos ($205) a month, and new staff are being hired.
The president of the cooperative is Elena Caliba. Her position does not entail working any less than the others or receiving a higher salary, nor is she authorized to adopt any decisions on her own.
"It means a lot more responsibility, because as well as working (on the machines), we have to deal with all the accounting, paperwork and sales," she told IPS.
The company is finally out of the red. "Every time we make a sale, first we cover expenses and taxes, and then we divide up the rest," she explained.
A similar situation was described by Liliana Correndo, from the cooperative formed to recover the Israelite Hospital in Buenos Aires.
Founded in the early 1900s, the hospital received donations from the Jewish community throughout many decades, and at one time employed 1,200 people. But beginning in the mid-1990s, a series of poor management decisions gradually ran it into the ground, while charitable contributions dried up.
In 2004, the courts declared the hospital bankrupt. "At that point there were 400 of us working here, but a lot of people left, and at the time the cooperative was created, there were less than 160 of us," recalled Correndo, who was and continues to be an administrative employee at the hospital.
Since that time, the staff has grown to almost 250 workers.
The cooperative was formed by nurses, lab technicians, and cleaning and administrative staff. The vast majority are women. "The doctors are not members of the cooperative, they're employees of the cooperative, and earn more than we do," noted Correndo.
After the doctors' fees, debt payments, taxes and expenditures on supplies are covered, there is enough left over for each employee to take home up to 150 pesos (around $50) a week, at most. "But in a few months we'll start earning between 250 and 300 pesos a week, which will be amazing," Correndo said.
Between 2003 and 2004, the employees of the Israelite Hospital worked for almost a year without pay, even though the hospital had been declared bankrupt and they had officially been laid off.
Despite the bankruptcy, the abandonment by its directors and the lack of salaries, the hospital continued to provide its urgently needed services.
Correndo does not believe that this hospital is run better simply because there are women in charge. She knows that the threat of corruption is ever present. But she also knows that there is a big difference between being an employee and actually managing the facility, and therefore knowing exactly how much money is coming in, how much is going out to cover expenses, and how much will be left over for wages.
At Grissinópoli, the factory's earnings are used to pay off debts, cover expenses, and contribute to a "reserve fund" created to deal with unforeseen contingencies. The remainder is distributed among the workers.
Pino meets with IPS in her "office," which is basically a desk in a warehouse space on the upper floor of the factory. Down below, 16 factory workers -- nine women and seven men -- are busy kneading, cutting, baking and packing the baked goods produced by the company, while listening to music at a much louder volume than when the bosses were around.
Each one takes home 1,300 pesos ($445) a month, more than double the normal salary for an unskilled factory worker in the food industry. "And if we work more than eight hours, we get paid overtime," adds Pino.
Things were very different a few years back. "It was in 1998 that everything started falling apart," she recalls. One of the partners in the company, who was managing the factory at the time, made a number of bad business deals, and tried to cover up the damage by hiding checks and other documents.
In 2000, he was replaced as manager by another partner, who was "honest but incompetent," Pino says, and therefore unable to get the company back on its feet. At the time, the workers were paid in dribs and drabs and large debts built up in the form of back pay owed to workers.
"By the end they owed me two years' salary," she noted, while other workers were owed between four and six months pay. "Back then there were different wage categories, and I earned a lot more," she added.
Every Friday the factory workers were paid 100 pesos. When their wages were suddenly cut from 100 to 10 pesos a week without notice, in 2002, they went on strike and occupied the factory. Pino laid down her conditions for joining them: "I'll support you 100 percent of the way, but I won't sleep here," she said.
The occupation lasted seven months. The owners disappeared, and the unpaid workers slept on the factory floor, among the machines. Production came to a standstill, and neighbors and workers from other factories chipped in with food and money.
Then the workers decided to organize as a cooperative. But after successfully overcoming the legal hurdles, they were faced with "the fight for sales," said Pino. Some of the factory's regular clients had disappeared after the 2001 economic collapse, while others were now buying from the competition.
Recovery came slowly. The factory now manufactures products sold under its own brand name, as well as goods produced and packaged for other companies that contract its services. Two more workers eventually had to be taken on.
In the meantime, the new management is fighting to keep the water supply from being cut off because of debts that the workers did not incur. While speaking with IPS, Pino continues to deal with the threat of an interruption in water service, which is eventually resolved, proving that things really have changed.
"I always did this work, but what's different now is that I have more responsibility, because there's no one else above me," she said.