Sunday, June 14, 2009

Chocolate sem patrão

We all know the childhood tale of Charley and the Chocolate Factory best emulated in the psychedelic inspired 1971 film. Charley a poor, well intentioned boy wins the Willy Wonka chocolate factory in a stroke of good fortune - every child's fantasy and utopia. But would what happen if Charley grew older and greedy against the advice of Willy Wonka? If he ran the chocolate factory into ruins, throwing out the workers and closing up shop? And what if the oompa loompas would take over the plant to demand their unpaid salaries and severance pay? What if they would decide to start up production without Charley, collectively running the plant and relating to other worker occupied factories? Well, this alternate version of the childhood story is becoming a reality for workers in Argentina.

In Argentina, Charley did abandon his factory. But in this case, Charley is Diana Arrufat, heiress to the Arrufat chocolate factory in Buenos Aires. She closed the factory's doors on January 5, 2009. The workers, who are not the imagined oompa loompa refugees in the film, but real workers decided to occupy the plant. And now the workers are producing deliciously sweet delicacies without the supervision and exploitive practices of Charley.

Factory closure

On January 5, the workers got the news that they were fired. Diana Arrufat left a poster on the gate of the factory to inform the workers they no longer had jobs. The 50 workers still employed hadn't been paid their salaries for much of 2008. "They fired us without having to look at our faces. They abandoned us," says Alberto Cavrico a worker who has worked at the plant for more than 20 years. That they same day they to open the factory gate and remain inside the factory.

Within hours owner went to the police accusing the workers for "usurpation" and trespassing of the plant. Meanwhile, she has been unwilling to meet with the workers and labor ministry to discuss how to normalize the situation.

Arrufat, founded in 1931 had been a national leader in chocolate. The family run business was finally inherited by the original owner's granddaughter, Diana Arrufat in the late 90's. Since she took over the company, the factory took a turn for the worse. Workers describe how the owner would cut corners sacrificing product quality - using hydrogenated oil instead of cocoa butter and imitation cocoa instead of the real beans imported from Ecuador or Brazil. In its heyday, when the company produced high quality chocolate, it employed more than 300 workers. By 2008, the chocolate manufacturer only had 66 employees.

Throughout 2008, the owner was not paying workers their full salary, with the promise that they would be paid at a later date. The workers sent a report to the labor ministry in May 2008 that the owner owed them nearly 6 months in back salaries, was emptying out the plant and hadn't paid the workers' retirement funds for 10 years. By the end of 2008, on Christmas Day the owners gave the workers 50 pesos (less than 20 dollars) and then five days before firing them paid them 50 pesos again on New Year's.

Many of the workers had heard about factory occupations but never thought that they would face a factory closure. "I never thought that I'd have to sleep inside the factory on top of a machine to defend my job post," says Marta Laurino, a stead fast woman with over 30 years working at the plant. Concluding that the owners weren't coming back, at least to open up shop again - the workers decided in an assembly to continue to occupy the plant and form a cooperative.

Chocolate without a boss

Just 30 days after occupying the plant, the workers of Arrufat had already formed a cooperative and sought out the advice from other occupied factories operating since the 2001 financial crisis. They have successfully begun producing, although sporadically because the electricity in the plant has been turned off since Diana Arrufat ran up a $15,000 dollar debt with the privatized electric company Edesur. And the electric company won't turn the lights back on until the debt is paid.

Meanwhile, the workers have invented alternatives in order to produce. For Easter, the cooperative produced more than 10,000 chocolate Easter eggs. They got a loan of $5,000 dollars from the NGO La Base that provides low interest loans to occupied factories and worker cooperatives. They used this money to rent an industrial generator and buy raw materials - cocoa beans, cocoa butter, liquor and sugar needed to make high-quality chocolate. They decided to re-open the store front on the side of the factory. The day that they started producing the government health inspector came to the plant, the same inspector's office which hadn't visited the factory in probably 20 years according to the workers. The police also came because the workers opened the store front.

All of the eggs were sold out of the factory's store front before the end of the Easter season. The workers were able to pay back the loan within a week, sell the entire stock of Easter eggs and each take home around $1,000, no small feat after not getting a full salary for more than a year. With the remaining capital, rented a generator and bought more raw materials.


Now the cooperative hopes that they can gain enough momentum in the market to continue production with regularity. But they are fighting an eviction notice, criminal charges and bureaucratic offices preventing them from accessing a tax number for their cooperative, which they consequentially need to get an account with the electric company. Looking at the business model other worker recuperated enterprises have established, the workers at Arrufat make all their decisions collectively in a weekly assembly. All workers are paid the same wage. And they want to continue to reinvent social relations inside the plant.

1 comment:

L. Rodrigues said...

Isso lembra-me que a Fagor, o fabricante de electrodomésticos "linha branca", com sede no País Basco e maior empregador da região, é uma cooperativa.
Ou pelo menos era, até há uns anos atrás.