The Pepsico Snacks factory in Buenos Aires, Argentina, employs about 400 workers. Women make up 70% of the workforce, working a rotating shift system in departments where they have to spend eight hours standing up operating a machine. Most are heads of their families – in some cases they are single mothers, in other cases their husbands are part of the country’s rapidly increasing army of unemployed. These young women often work double shifts in order to get a higher salary, but even that doesn’t meet their family needs.
And as if this life of slavery wasn’t enough, in January Pepsico sacked 70 contract workers. By April, a total of 130 contract workers had been made redundant, despite opposition from some shop stewards who confronted the trade union bureaucracy and the bosses, accusing the latter of violating national labour legislation.
Factory of tortures
Elsa 1 works in the packing section: ‘The machines have been speeded up by more than 50%. Three women assemble the boxes, stack them, and then return to assembling them…’ The same movement with their arms, the same routine for eight hours, with only thirty minutes for lunch and a visit to the toilet. ‘The machine makes you work at high speed,’ says Elsa. ‘Sometimes I am sitting on the floor playing with my son and I cannot get up because of the pain in my wrists, brought on by the speed of the packing. You are standing for eight hours and there is nowhere to rest yourself.’
A young worker – he is a delegate from the factory – tells me that the main illness suffered by the workers is varicose veins. One female worker sued the company and obliged it to cover her treatment, and after this event the union – accomplice of the bosses – withdrew the treatment of varicose veins from the list of illnesses covered by the union health care scheme.
Rosalba says that she cannot stand the heat inside the factory. Fans continuously circulate the hot and rancid air from the frying machines; and, unbelievably, in her department the seats are made of aluminium. Like one of those ancient, macabre tortures attributed to the Chinese, if Pepsico workers get so tired that they have to sit down, they burn themselves on the aluminium seats.
Julia has blisters on her hands, but for her this is routine since the potatoes are cooked at more than 200ºC, and, despite the fact that they work with hot oil, the company has had the clever idea to make them wear latex gloves.
When crisps have a bitter taste
After sacking the contract workers, Pepsico made sure that the permanent workers and the two delegates who supported them were victimised. At present, the two delegates are suspended and inside the factory there is a reign of terror. Shop stewards elected by the whole factory who oppose the sackings and confront the union are not convenient for the bosses.
There have been well attended assemblies of the Pepsico workers, with equal participation by contract and permanent workers – one of the few cases of this in Buenos Aires. The bosses and trade union leaders want to prevent this kind of the organisation amongst workers, so the attacks on them are designed to be exemplary.
The sacked Pepsico workers and the suspended delegates have the support and solidarity of well known lawyers, neighbourhood assemblies, the International Union of Food Industry Workers, workers from the occupied Zanon ceramic factory in Neuquen and the Brukman textile factory in Buenos Aires, hundreds of shop stewards and factory delegates, the human rights organisation CEPRODH2, left political parties and hundreds of people from different professions and organisations who signed a petition of support.
However, this has not been enough to reverse the policy of this American company.
Meanwhile, the IMF envoy to Argentina, Anoop Singh, has told Duhalde what measures he should take against the population. The multinational corporations behave unscrupulously towards the workers that, through their own sweat and sacrifice, allow them to earn millions.3
The masks of the Multinationals
Pepsico is owned by the Pepsi Cola company and makes crisps and other snacks. In its web page, the company points out that it prioritises supplying companies run by women or ethnic minorities.
Pepsico uses the Latino singers Chayanne and Shakira to sell its products. Shakira was unstinting in her praise of her father in law Fernando de la Rúa, the inept former president who fled the presidential palace in a helicopter last December following mass demonstrations which left several dozen people dead.
Of course, Pepsico’s politically correct attitude towards women and ethnic minorities is only a mask for the benefit of consumers. Behind the mask is a monster that carries out the most brutal exploitation of young women imaginable. Behind Shakira are hundreds of Julias, Elsas and Rosalbas.
But in Argentina we are fed up with unemployment, with the abuses and the arrogance of the bosses, and with imperialism.
While Pepsico continues increasing its profits with the compliance of the trade union, the delegates that defend the workers are persecuted. While Shakira dances with little Antonio4 in Miami and drinks Pepsi Cola, women workers get blisters, varicose veins and pains in their joints and their simple dream to work to maintain their children is shattered.
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1 The names have been changed in order to avoid victimisation. Nevertheless, the testimonies are, unfortunately, real.
2 CEPRODH (Centro de Profesionales de Derechos Humanos). For more information about the activities of this organisation please visit their web site at www.ceprodh.org.ar
3 Last year Pepsico’s turnover was US $20 billion. The factory was established in Argentina 8 years ago and now dominates the market for snack food, having taking over companies like Bum, Pehuamar, etc.
4 Antonio De La Rúa, son of the former Argentinean president.