Young Argentinian women forge a future in a cooperative factory

Part of the team of young entrepreneurs from the Maleza Cosmética Natural cooperative pose for photos in their laboratory in the Villa Lugano neighborhood in southern Buenos Aires, Argentina. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

The project goes beyond production: the cooperative’s laboratory is also a space for social and community meetings to fight for rights and raise collective awareness.

By Daniel Gutman (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – “We started making shampoos and soaps in the kitchen of a friends house in 2017. We were five or six unemployed girls, looking for a collective solution, and today we are here,” says Letsy Villca, standing between the white walls of the spacious laboratory of Maleza Cosmética Natural, a cooperative that brings together 44 women in their early twenties in the Argentine capital.

Maleza has come a long way in a short time and currently produces 400 bottles of shampoo and 600 bars of soap per week, as well as face creams and makeup remover, among other products. They are sold throughout Argentina through the cooperative’s digital platform and other marketing channels.

The cooperative is a powerful example of the so-called people’s economy, through which millions of people unable to access formal employment or a bank loan struggle with a lack of opportunity, amid the overwhelming economic crisis in this South American country, where more than 40 percent of the population of nearly 46 million people live in poverty.

The National Register of Popular Economy Workers (Renatep) lists 2,830,520 people who live from street vending, recycling waste, construction, cleaning or working in soup kitchens.

A glance at Renatep shows which social groups are the most disadvantaged in the labor market, since there is a majority of women (57%) and young people between 18 and 35 (62%).

The picture is complete when the figures are compared with those of registered employees in the private sector, where women and young people are in the minority – 33 and 39%, respectively.

As part of its social assistance program focused on supporting the popular economy, the Ministry of Social Development provided Maleza with a grant that enabled him to purchase the glass tubes, thermometers, extractors oil, steel tables and office equipment that today furnish what was once the dismantling warehouse of an old factory.

The young women rented the 213 square meter premises in January 2021.

By moving from the kitchen of a house to a spacious and well air-conditioned place, they were able to increase their production by 500% thanks to better working conditions and the possibility of storing raw materials.

It took three months for the young women themselves to renovate the property, which now has a meeting room, offices, bathrooms, changing rooms and a large laboratory.

Letsy Villca (left) and Brisa Medina show some of the products made by Maleza. Members of the cooperative work four hours a day for an income equivalent to half the minimum monthly wage, paid for by an employment incentive program of the Ministry of Social Development, the amount of which will change as their business will start making a profit. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

change the future

“’Maleza’ or weed is a plant that is pulled out of the ground and grows again. A plant that is rejected, but resists, because it is strong and always grows back. That’s why we chose this name,” Brisa Medina, 22, tells IPS.

The project goes beyond production: the cooperative’s laboratory is also a space for social and community meetings to fight for rights and raise collective awareness.

The Maleza facility is located south of the city of Buenos Aires, in Villa Lugano, a district of factories and social housing, far from the most popular areas of the Argentine capital.

The members of the cooperative – mostly women but also two men – live some 25 blocks (about 2.3 kilometers) from the factory, in Villa 20, one of the city’s largest slums, home to more than 30,000 people.

Most of those living in Villa 20 are Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants who work as textile workers for garment manufacturers in precarious workshops set up in their homes.

The profession is transmitted from generation to generation, as are the harsh working conditions, in exchange for remuneration fixed unilaterally by the buyers, without the right to negotiate.

“We wanted to do something else: to have a project that belonged to us, that we liked, with a decent place to work, that allowed us to study and where we could use our knowledge, because many of us were classmates in a chemistry technical school, but it is almost impossible to find a job,” Letsy, 22, tells IPS.

To their technical know-how, acquired through various courses after the baccalaureate, the young women of Maleza have added the ancestral know-how transmitted by their families, to manufacture cosmetics free of polluting chemical products and produced with respect for the environment. ‘environment.

“Since I was a child, I watched my mother prepare and sell medicinal herbs and natural products. That’s when I started to learn,” says Ruth Ortiz, 23 and mother of a four-year-old daughter.

Ruth adds that the goal was to make a product they could dream big of in terms of sales, as many in the Villa earn extra income by baking bread or cooking meals, but only sell their products to neighbors. .

“As soon as we felt ready, we started selling at street fairs and gradually improved our products and packaging,” she explains.

The image dates from a year ago, when the young cooperators renovated the warehouse of an old factory into a cosmetics laboratory. CREDIT: Courtesy of Maleza Cosmética Natural

For many of them, the cooperative was more a necessity than a choice, she admits: “It’s very difficult for anyone to find a job, but it’s more difficult for the people of the Villa. When you say where you live, they don’t want to hire you.

Ruth is the only member of the cooperative who is a mother. She started working when her daughter was an eight month old baby. She often takes her to the lab and they all take turns caring for her, because one of Maleza’s fundamental premises is that women should be able to work outside the home, generate their own income and not be trapped in unpaid housework. .

Wages paid by social assistance

Brisa, who worked as a cashier at a hair salon, found herself without a job in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and all non-essential businesses in Argentina were ordered to close. “Maleza was my salvation,” she says.

After the socio-economic catastrophe of the first year of the pandemic, 2021 has been a year of economic recovery in Argentina, although marked by an alarming level of job insecurity: official data shows that almost three million jobs have created last year, but almost all of them are non-registered employees (1,329,000) and self-employed (1,463,000).

Informal or unregistered workers and the self-employed are also the hardest hit by the loss of purchasing power in an economy with an inflation rate of more than 50% per year.

In this context, Maleza is looking for a way forward. The current income from the factory is enough to pay the rent for the lab plus electricity, water and internet services and other expenses, but still not enough to pay the salaries of the members.

Many of the young women in the Maleza cooperative were classmates in a technical and chemical school and are using what they learned, as well as the knowledge about medicinal plants passed on to them by their families. CREDIT: Courtesy of Maleza Cosmética Natural

“We are looking for ways to reduce costs and increase profitability. Although sales have not yet reached the levels we think we can achieve, we are making progress in advertising and opening new marketing channels, so we hope to make a profit by the middle of this year,” said Julia Argnani, another member of the cooperative. IPS.

Today, Maleza is divided into four areas of work: administration, production, marketing and communication, which includes the design and administration of social networks. She also wants to be a tool for empowering other social cooperatives, for example by delivering her products in reusable bags made by another group of women.

All members of Maleza have a fixed income thanks to the fact that they are beneficiaries of Potenciar Trabajo, a socio-productive inclusion and local development plan administered by the Ministry of Social Development.

The program gives Renatep registrants half the Argentine minimum wage: 16,500 pesos (about $150) per month, in exchange for a four-hour workday.

In this Southern Cone country, 45% of the population receives some form of social assistance through an extensive network that includes direct economic assistance, food aid, subsidized electricity and gas tariffs and Professional formation.

In the case of Potenciar Trabajo, it is currently paid to 1,200,000 workers in the informal sector, according to data provided to IPS by the Ministry of Social Development. According to the official statistics institute, the $150 a month paid to them represents a quarter of the income needed to keep a family of four out of poverty.

“Our goal is also to be proud of where we started and to show that a women’s cooperative like ours can produce quality products,” says Julia.

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Virginia S. Braud