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ARGENTINA | 12-11-2021 20:10

Economic hardships take their toll on stomachs – and society

In La Boca and other disadvantaged neighbourhoods across the capital, soup kitchens have sprung up on almost every street corner, run by social movements with help from the state.

Fátima, Stéfani and Carlos Alberto go to a soup kitchen in La Boca every day. When everything closed down in this famous Buenos Aires barrio because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they had to stop working. Now they watch helplessly as inflation eats away at the little money they can bring in.

"I've been coming to the soup kitchen for [the last] five months. I was never in need before. I've always had a job and I earned well, but after the pandemic, I no longer could. Every day I send my CV, nobody calls mel," says 23-year-old Stéfani Chinguel.

In a container, she takes two lunches: one for herself and the other for her partner, who has a formal job at a shop but whose salary is insufficient. 

"My boyfriend sometimes gets a pay rise, but 1,000 pesos is not in line with the price increases," she explains. Inflation this year is 41.8 percent so far, in just the first 10 months of the year.

Stéfani has worked many jobs since she turned 18. She cared for the elderly, sold cars. Now she goes to the soup kitchen, not only for food but also for the chance to be given a job in the kitchen, which is rewarded with a state subsidy equivalent to half the minimum wage of 32,000 pesos a month (some US$300 at the official exchange rate).

"Many people want to work here, but there are no vacancies," says Edith Cusipaucar, 40, a mother of six who has been working at the canteen for years.

She also receives 15,000 pesos (US$145) a month from the state as an allowance for her three youngest children. But every night she goes out to sell food at a street stall. 

"Do you think that with a salary of 15,400 pesos a month you can support a family?” she asks.

In La Boca and other disadvantaged neighbourhoods across the capital, such as Bajo Flores, soup kitchens have sprung up on almost every street corner, run by social movements with help from the state. Most of them occupy small premises and deliver food to take away.

 

Informal work, lower wages

Fátima Gomez works at a cleaning and maintenance company and, although she did not lose her job during the pandemic, she found that there were no offices to clean. 

As a result, her salary was reduced by almost half and for the first time in her life she went to a soup kitchen for lunch. The aid helps her provide for herself, her three children and her granddaughter.

“I work to survive. If I don't pick up the food, we don't make ends meet. It's not enough. Maybe you eat at noon and not at nigh," explains the woman, who has been living in a ‘conventillo’ (“boarding house”) for 20 years.

Carlos Alberto Álvarez, 61, is a street vendor, but he says that he can’t even do that anymore. 

"On the street, the police chase us away. They don't let us work. I come because of need, because of hunger. There is no work, that's why we come to look for food," he says.

Argentina’s unemployment rate stood at 9.6 percent in the second quarter of this year, while underemployment reached 12.4 percent. The poverty rate is 40.6 percent. 

 

Social unrest

"The pandemic accelerated processes that were already taking place in the world, where there was more and more informal work and unrecognised work. When from one day to the next, the circulation of people and, consequently, of the economy, is stopped, it exposes a system that was not prepared to include all people," explains Ezequiel Barbenza, a professor at the Universidad del Salvador.

During Argentina's long 2020 Covid lockdown, the state offered exceptional assistance for informal workers affected by the economic slowdown. 

"It was designed to reach three million people, 12 million signed up and it was granted to nine million. It showed an enormous universe," Barbenza points out.

The lack of employment is, along with inflation and personal insecurity, the issues that most worry voters according to political scientist Diego Reynoso, who oversees a public opinion survey at the Universidad del San Andrés.

"It generates a lot of uncertainty among the people and a great deal of unease. Society is very anxious, angry, dissatisfied, with a fatal mood, which it channels towards the government," says the analyst.

 

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by Nina Negrón, AFP

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