Labor Minister Jorge Triaca. Photo via Los Andes

Ever since President Mauricio Macri took office in December, there has been lots of debate and back-and-forth about whether the supposed wave of layoffs that many were witnessing was real. Now the government has officially come out and said it was.

Labor Minister Jorge Triaca has admitted that 120,000 jobs have been lost this year due to what he called the government’s objectives of “bringing the economy back to normal” in Congress today, where various Lower House committees were discussing a bill presented by the administration back in April, intended to generate conditions to help young people aged between 18 and 24 enter the labor market.

“In the last few months, 35,000 jobs have been created and 120,000 have been lost. The majority have been in two sectors: construction, because public works stopped after the last semester of 2015 […] and the manufacturing industry,” Triaca told the special commission.

The bill that the government is presenting seeks to help the 966,000 youths who aren’t studying or working. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, the unemployment rate is a huge 24 percent.

According to the UN’s 2015 Work for Human Development report published in August, Argentina holds the highest youth unemployment rate in Latin America. That study, which encompassed youths from ages 15 to 24, put the unemployment rate at 19.4 percent.

Triaca said the bill would create 240,000 jobs a year (120,000 in the North of the country, 120,000 in the rest of the country) by encouraging companies to hire young workers, in exchange for paying fewer benefits. But opposition politicians and union leaders were quick to criticize the measure, saying it was all part of an effort by the government to cheapen the value of labor.

Victory Front (FpV) lawmaker Abel Furlán, who is also a leader in the UOM metal workers’ union, said that the bill was simply a tool for businessmen to “replace qualified and experienced workers with docile [ones] who are easier to mold to [the employer’s] needs at a lower cost.”

The intensity in the committee reflects current heightened social tension regarding employment after the massive Federal March last Friday, when numerous social organizations from all regions of the country staged a protest against the Macri administration. The largest umbrella unions, the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA) and the CGT, have warned they may call for a national strike on September 23 due to inflation and unemployment. They’re also demanding the government reopen wage negotiations.