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Argentina: What does Macri’s win mean for labour and social rights?

by Marc Rogers

On 10 December, 2015 Mauricio Macri became president of Argentina, ending 12 years of political rule by couple Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015).

Macri, a former businessman and two-term mayor of Buenos Aires for the centre-right Propuesta Republicana (PRO) party, surprised many by narrowly beating Kirchnerist candidate Daniel Scioli in a run-off vote.

His message of change – the coalition he leads is called Cambiemos (‘Let’s change’) – hit home with voters looking for someone who could breathe new life into a stagnant economy and offer an alternative to Ms Kirchner’s combative leadership style. But after a campaign that offered few specifics, questions remain over what the advent of ’Macrism’ will mean for labour and social rights, two key areas over the last decade.

According to Adolfo Aguirre, secretary for international relations at the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA), the new government will face stiff resistance if it introduces policies that undermine the workers’ rights recovered under Kirchnerism.

“He [Macri] must understand that the organised labour movement is very strong here,” Aguirre tells Equal Times, pointing out that Argentina is among the top three most unionised countries in South America. “There will be conflict if he attempts to reverse certain labour rights, especially those considered fundamental rights by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).”

Chief amongst union concerns is talk of an impending devaluation and fiscal austerity, which could have a significant impact on purchasing power and job security. Aguirre estimates that some 95,000 state workers are currently on temporary one-year contracts, with few indications as to whether they will be renewed by the new government.

And while unemployment has reached a historic low of 5.9 per cent, according to contested official figures, around a third of the workforce operates in the informal economy.

Incoming labour minister Jorge Triaca has sought to reassure workers. He said the government will increase the threshold of non-taxable income and provide new social and pension benefits. He also pledged to maintain collective wage negotiations, but asked unions to exercise restraint while the government works to reduce inflation and attract investment.

“We’re going to work towards a social pact, on the understanding that workers, business owners, and the state can find areas where we can all shoulder some responsibility to make the economy grow,” Triaca said in an interview with Cronista.

Aguirre says the CTA union will seek dialogue with the new government, though he is cautious of Macri’s background and the appointment of several corporate executives in his new cabinet.

“The state can’t function like a business,” he notes, echoing a recent warning by President Fernández. “A business-style approach would involve reducing the size of the state in order to lower costs, but if you do that it will cost lives, especially those of children.”

 

A changed society

Another legacy of Kirchnerism is the expansion of social rights related to sexual identity and diversity.

Under President Fernández, Argentina became the first Latin American country to appove same-sex marriage in 2010. Two years later it sanctioned a ground-breaking Gender Identity Law allowing transsexuals to change their name and sex on official documents without prior judicial approval.

According to the Argentine LGBT Federation, these laws have already benefitted around 12,000 same-sex couples and 6,000 transsexuals. They have also filtered through to other more recent measures such as removing restrictions on homosexuals donating blood and improving medical access for the transsexual community.

Legislators for Macri’s PRO party have in most cases not supported these laws, but the president-elect has not actively blocked progressive policies either. The president of the Argentine federation of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered (FALGBT) Esteban Paulón says this is down to a fundamental shift in social thinking, which should safeguard recent advances even under a conservative government.

“All of these laws were approved with huge consensus and support, and have now been adopted by society,” Paulón explains to Equal Times. “Today it would be unthinkable for any government to propose banning same-sex marriage or preventing homosexual couples from adopting children.”

He cites the example of vice-president elect Gabriela Michetti, who voted against the laws but expressed regret for this during the recent campaign, as evidence that an increasingly progressive society sets the terms for discussing gender issues.

“I don’t see a catastrophic scenario of winding back the laws that have been approved,” says Paulón. “I think these will be maintained and then it remains to be seen what happened with issues currently being developed and those that still need to be incorporated into the public agenda.”

Some of the key demands that the FALGBT and other social organisations have for the Macri administration include new anti-discrimination legislation – particularly relevant following the recent murder of trans activist Diana Sacayán – and the incorporation of sexual diversity issues in the national curriculum.

“We believe there are still many issues pending and if we don’t keep moving forward it will represent a step backwards,” concludes Paulón.

 

Abortion: the missing piece

One area where there is still little hope for change is abortion, which remains illegal under Argentina’s penal code except in cases of rape against “an idiotic or demented woman” or when the pregnancy presents serious risks to the mother’s life.

Despite growing grassroots pressure and a series of campaigns led by Amnesty International, the issue has not been debated in Congress. It also faces strong opposition among the PRO leadership: just days before the presidential election, Macri used Twitter to distance his party from statements made by a key campaign manager in favour of legalised abortion.

Furthermore, incoming health minister Jorge Lemus, who served in the same post under Macri in Buenos Aires for nearly five years, resigned in 2012 amidst heavy criticism for failing to comply with a Supreme Court ruling which gives all rape victims the right to an abortion without a complicated judicial process.

The resolution signed by Lemus, which imposed additional restrictions on those seeking non-punishable abortions in the capital, was later rejected by the local courts. A new law was approved in the city legislature in September 2012, only to be vetoed by Macri shortly afterwards.

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