March of the Juice Boxes: Labor Reform and Social Protest in Peru

NM-Ley Pulpín primera manifestación
The first march on December 18, 2014. Credit to photographer: Nelson Manrique

It felt like the movement was over before it had even begun. In the final weeks of December, I began to follow a series of protests in Peru, which had come to my attention via social media. Young Peruvians had taken to the streets of Lima and other regional capitals in one of largest public protests in over fifteen years. Marchers expressed discontent towards a newly passed national labor reform aimed at Peru’s young adult workers. This legislation ostensibly targeted endemic issues in Peru’s labor sector, namely high rates of informality employment, low skill levels among youth, and an inflexible labor market. The wide-scale backlash to the law demonstrated a persistent dissatisfaction with the present administration of President Ollanta Humala, and one of the most concerted displays of protest against his embattled political agenda.

By the final week of January, these protests culminated with Peru’s national legislative body voting to repeal the law, a whiplash reversal of opinion resulting in another political black eye for President Humala. Detractors had relabeled the “Law to Promote Youth Access to the Labor Market and Social Protection,” the “Ley Pulpín” in reference to a brand of fruit juice commonly included in schoolchildren’s snacks. The rebranding mocked the law’s intention to create a separate category of labor contracts for young workers ages 18 to 24, seen as overwhelmingly employed in informal occupations and lacking the skills needed to thrive in the formal sector. Workers contracted under this regime would receive the minimum wage of 750 nuevos soles per month (roughly US$ 250), though critics found real issue with the fact that young workers contracted under the new régimen laboral juvenil would enjoy fewer benefits than workers contracted under the régimen general.

Despite the flurry of activity (five marches in Lima alone along with vigorous public debate), the international media barely covered the Ley Pulpín affair. On the one hand, I reasoned, this isn’t surprising. The large protests in Brazil that proliferated in 2013 understandably drew attention due to their criticisms stemming from Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Protests in Mexico in recent months touched a nerve far beyond the provincial municipality where 43 students were apparently massacred by police, seriously shaking the legitimacy of the present administration. In Peru, however, despite high turnout the entire affair felt like business as usual. In other words, the chances of the Ley Pulpín protests transforming into the social movement that the country needs seemed even less likely than in Brazil and Mexico, where protests have also failed so far to coalesce into broader political movements.

Peru, of course, always draws my attention. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there before coming to Georgetown, living for two years in the rural department of Piura and one year in the bustling capital of Lima. I worked on projects related to community and environmental health, often working with adolescents and young kids. Time has flown, and many of these kids are entering the working world, some equipped with university or technical degrees, though often not. Many if not most young people in the small agricultural town where I lived and worked leave to find work in the departmental capital or in Lima, while some opt to stay and work in the rice and cornfields. Though it’s hard to ascertain their precise opinions on labor reform from afar, when I read about the consequences (intended and unintended) of the Ley Pulpín, I naturally think of these now-grown chibolos, many of whom were among my first Peruvian friends.

In the eyes of critics, the Ley Pulpín as initially passed merely made it cheaper for employers to hire youth under a “Pulpín” contract. Among the most cited rights curtailed under the law: Pulpín workers would no longer receive standard benefits granted to all workers, some of which are guaranteed by the Peruvian Constitution.  Among other concerns, it is unclear if such a measure actually encourages informal employees to transition to the formal sector, or that employment under the youth regime would guarantee more stable employment after workers pass the age limit. Despite futile attempts to swat down what proponents saw as spurious myths, the agitation over the law exposes a crucial problem: this reform measure was crafted with little consultation from labor leaders or civil society, much less that of youth workers, a significant segment of country’s young population.

Those of us who have studied in CLAS often combine our interdisciplinary academic analyses with our deeply important personal experiences. What is essentially a political economy problem takes on a new dimension when I consider the impact of new labor measures on youth in Peru, attempting to enter the labor market and aspiring to do so with dignity. A historical dimension to this issue exists as well, of course. The curtailing of labor unions and political opponents by former president Alberto Fujimori (under pretext of defending the Peruvian state against terrorism) severely weakened the tenuous position of the Peruvian worker. The weakening of labor and political institutions under Fujimori’s government is a legacy that Peru still struggles with today. Present-day Peru, while more peaceful than at the height of its civil war remains, a contentious country: the Defensoría del Pueblo reported 210 social conflicts (160 active, 50 latent) throughout the Andean nation in December 2014. Difficulties in resolving citizen concerns on policies related to environment, labor, and security lead to frequent recourse through blockades, protests and work stoppages.

The Ley Pulpín affair encapsulates the present crisis of politics in Peru: one in which there is disconnect between elected officials and the constituents they claim to represent. All countries without a doubt have political challenges, and Peru’s present challenge is transforming the social discontent towards top-down politics into an effective social movement. Meanwhile, I continue to wonder about the country that the youth of Peru will inherit, and about what kind of country they will eventually build.

Douglas McRae graduated from the MALAS program in 2014 and is currently a Ph.D student in the History Department at Georgetown, focusing on Brazilian and modern Latin American history.

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