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Trash and utopia

Researchers identify and analyze how the phenomenon of productive insertion works in times of crisis

Cardboard recycler on the streets of Belo Horizonte

Walmir Monteiro/sambaphotoCardboard recycler on the streets of Belo HorizonteWalmir Monteiro/sambaphoto

In January 2008, the unemployment rate in Brazil was 8%. The situation was not as tragic as in January 2003, when unemployment soared above 11%. However, many workers were still seeking alternative income in the informal labor market. It was precisely at that time that a group of researchers, led by Márcia de Paula Leite of the Graduate Program in Education and Social Sciences at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), undertook a study to identify and understand the different methods of productive insertion that are established in times of crisis, and in the cooperative movement in particular, which at the time was already bolstered by official policy.

Over the next five years, the scenario changed, and the unemployment rate dropped to a level close to 5%; as a result, researchers witnessed the restructuring of this market. With FAPESP support, Leite coordinates the thematic project entitled Labor’s crisis and new experiences in employment and income generation:  the different faces of associative labor and gender. She says that “jobs that are not secure still exist, but the cooperative and association movements have taken on different features that challenge the ideas of some schools of thought on solidarity economics.”

The concept of solidarity economics has its origin in the economic and employment crisis of the 1960s and identifies methods for organization of work that are unlike the market standards, including the association movement. The concept earned official policy status with the Brazilian federal government in 2003 and is considered an initiative that promotes social inclusion. The program page on the Ministry of Labor and Employment web site explains that “solidarity economics is a different way of producing, selling, buying and trading what is needed to live: without exploiting others, without trying to take advantage, and without destroying the environment.” It involves “economic and social entities organized as cooperatives, associations, trading clubs, self-managed companies, and collaborative networks to name a few, that produce goods, provide services, solidarity financing, exchanges, fair trade, and solidarity consumption.”

The research study that Leite coordinated, with lead researchers Jacob Carlos Lima from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), and Ângela Maria Carneiro Araújo from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), began with a comprehensive survey of several sources of the “different production” methods in the state of São Paulo, which identified a total of 107 cooperatives: food (3), crafts (21), sewing and apparel-making (11), rehabilitated factories (13), and principally, recycling (59). Leite says, “We visited all the cooperatives and associations of São Paulo with a team of grant recipients to administer the questionnaire.”

In the past: Unemployed workers show their work cards a decade ago beside peddlers in the city of São Paulo

Epitácio Pessoa/Agência Estado/AEIn the past: Unemployed workers show their work cards a decade ago beside peddlers in the city of São PauloEpitácio Pessoa/Agência Estado/AE

The analysis of the information showed that the food, crafts and sewing cooperatives were literally informal and unorganized, and that the labor force focused more on marketing than production. There was little contribution to raising income or bettering the living conditions of the members. The rehabilitated factories were more “structured” experiments, with closer ties to the union, since they included workers who had migrated from the formal market with no prospects of return. However, an increasingly uncommon phenomenon in a developing economy was revealed among the self-managed companies, Leite stressed.

The most representative experience, and the one that drew the most attention from the researchers, was and continues to be the recycling cooperatives, which brought together “extremely excluded” urban workers who were unemployed and idle and who were former illiterate trash collectors or domestics with no way to enter the formal labor market. “This type of insertion may in fact help lift them out of social poverty and give them social citizenship.”

Moreover, these cooperatives are different because of their organization. They are linked to the National Recyclables Movement [Movimento Nacional de Catadores de Recicláveis (MNCR)], which according to the researcher, was successful in regulating the occupation and enacting the National Solid Waste Policy in August 2010. “These, the others, have high growth potential since they also represent a significant percentage of the population, roughly 16.2 million people, whose per capita income is less than R$70,” Leite says, based on data from the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), collected in June 2012.

Because of its features, the recycling cooperative is the type of undertaking that comes closest to the precepts of solidarity economics in that it has an element of worker “resistance” to the status of exclusion, unemployment, or subordination to salaried labor. However, it is an extremely “fragile” venture according to Leite, and major difficulties must be overcome to achieve conditions of economic sustainability and replication. The first of these conditions is the gap that remains between the principles of solidarity and the practice of self-management that solidarity economics supports. As Leite says, they are “difficult to achieve under current political conditions.”

In addition, the market has already understood that recycling adds value to products by turning trash and scrap into raw materials at a very low cost. “The trash is separated in the shed, and then it is separated, bagged, or bundled, and sold for a few cents to intermediaries who sell it to the recyclers. Few cooperatives have presses or storage space,” as she describes. Public policies that allow the collection cooperatives to add value to their products have to be implemented.” The Solid Waste Act, enacted in 2011, for example, encourages local governments to negotiate solid waste treatment with collection cooperatives, but until now, few have adopted this policy.

Eduardo CesarLeite acknowledges that in some ways the cooperative movement supports social and political inclusion for individuals who until now have been living in absolute poverty. She notes that while visiting recycling associations, the members of the cooperatives said that organized labor has brought them out of silence. She emphasized that “this is, without a doubt, a process of liberation and empowerment that promotes solidarity economics.”

“Inclusion” and “empowerment” mean collective action by individuals that raises social awareness of social rights, and this seems to be the strength of solidarity economics initiatives. Adriane Vieira Ferrarini, a researcher with the Graduate Program in Social Sciences at Unisinos in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, has studied this issue and wonders whether these initiatives, if analyzed solely from an income perspective, may seem inefficient. “They have a significant impact on social inclusion since they assume that there is a collective and democratic model of managing the undertaking and self-management, which in many cases may represent a gain greater than income.” Among the many cases that were surveyed, she cites the example of a group of women entrepreneurs from Rio Grande do Sul who organized and mobilized against domestic violence, a political leadership role in their communities, and went back to school.

In Rio Grande do Sul, where the cooperative movement is strong, most of the experiments with solidarity economics take place in rural environments or, on a smaller scale, through self-managed companies. “It is more difficult to strengthen these initiatives in the urban environment due to the characteristics of urban poverty.” Therefore, Vieira Ferrarini believes that significant social gains are most likely to occur only in the medium and long term, since this is a process of inclusion for people who are experiencing “a historical process of deterioration” and a recent initiative in the case of Brazil. “Anyone who designs economic solidarity ventures as islands of prosperity in a context of insecurity runs the risk of having their hopes dashed,” she warns. “One major achievement is that the movement succeeded in placing a series of public initiatives on the political agenda, especially in the last decade. Today, for example, there are resources for small entrepreneurs and programs to train these entrepreneurs.” She stresses that solidarity economics is not a panacea for poverty, and that it “would even be pretentious to think so!” Yet, it is one of the “alternatives to poverty” and goes further in that it proposes a development plan focused on sustainability, social and economic justice, and participative democracy, she adds.

According to the coordinator’s assessment of the thematic project that received FAPESP support, the low impact the solidarity cooperative movement has on income reinforces the culture of salaried employment, especially when employment indicators are rising. “In Brazil, regulated citizenship, in terms of formal labor, impacts the formation of worker identity and his or her future prospects in the labor market.” Thus, the idea of self-management or collective ownership of the means of production does not emerge as an opportunity to be conquered. “The establishment of a new culture of labor through associations assumes that a political will is expressed in public policies for effective changes in the priorities and directions of economic development that places priority on labor over capital.”

Labor’s crisis and new experiences in employment and income generation: the different faces of associative labor and gender issues (nº 2006/61142-3); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Coordinator Márcia de Paula Leite (Unicamp); Investment: R$419,219.25 (FAPESP).