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Argentina: Controversy Surrounding Labour Conditions in Production of Yerba Mate

The Province of Misiones, which features one of the natural wonders of the world, the recently selected Iguazú falls, is a current area of controversy concerning working conditions of the employees in the cultivation of the popular yerba mate in Argentina.

Yerba mate was the centre of controversy in March of 2011 when the Federal Administration of Public Income (AFIP, an entity in charge of implementing policies enforced by the Executive arm of government in taxation, imports and exports, and collection of social security resources) discovered slave labour in a yerba mate field. The website Fortuna Web [es] published the results of an investigation done by Argentina's tax agency:

La Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos (AFIP) detectó mediante inspección el trabajo de niños en la recolección de la cosecha y la ausencia de sanitarios, agua potable y energía eléctrica en el campo ubicado en Puerto Esperanza, a 260 kilómetros de Posadas.

The Federal Administration of Public Income discovered children working in the collection of harvest during an inspection and the absence of bathrooms, potable water and electric power in a field situated in Puerto Esperanza, 260 kilometres from Posadas.

On the other hand, the website Artículos y Debates de Política [es] (Articles and Political Debates) published an article with respect to the working conditions of the yerba mate workers:

Hacinamiento, insalubridad, trabajo en negro, incumplimiento del jornal diario, trabajo de menores, pago con vales, algunas de las irregularidades que se pudo relevar en un campamento de tareferos en Caraguatay. El Sindicato de Tareferos denuncia la ausencia de los inspectores del Ministerio de Trabajo para controlar las condiciones de la cosecha y la complicidad del poder político de la zona.

Overcrowding, unhealthiness, unreported employment, incompletion of daily working hours, employment of minors, payment vouchers, some irregularities that can be uncovered in a tarefero (*Yerba mate field workers are called tareferos) camp in Caraguatay. The Tarefero Syndicate denounces the absence of inspectors from the Ministry of Labour to regulate the harvesting conditions and the complicity of politicians in the zone.

Yerba mate farmers protest in Misiones – photo by Pablodf (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a post from April 2012, Global Voices published citizens reactions to the increase in the price of the popular yerba mate. One of the motives in the authorisation of the rise in this raw material is to improve the marketability of the industries and the working conditions of the employees. Increases are approved on a  six-month basis. The Resolution of 119/2012 of the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries [es] of Argentina, published by the National Institute of Yerba Mate,  [es] says:

entre las funciones del INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE LA YERBA MATE (INYM), la de acordar semestralmente, entre los distintos sectores participantes del mismo, el precio de la materia prima.
Que el Artículo 12 del Decreto Nº 1240 del 12 de julio de 2002 establece, como períodos semestrales, a los comprendidos entre los meses de abril a septiembre y de octubre a marzo de cada año.
Que el precio de la materia prima debe resultar de un acuerdo en el INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE LA YERBA MATE (INYM), basado en el precio promedio de venta al consumidor de los productos elaborados con yerba mate,

Among other duties of the National Institute of Yerba mate (INYM), is to settle every six months, among other participating sectors, the price of the raw material.
Article 12 of the Decree law No. 1240 of 12 July 2002 establishes that after every six month period, as agreed to including between the months of April to September and between October and March each year. The price of raw material will be a result of an agreement in the National Institute of Yerba Mate (INYM), based on the average selling price to consumers of products manufactured from yerba mate.

This regulation of increases at six month intervals was put into place since 2002 through the Decree law Nº 1240 of the same year. However, there have been reactions referring to working conditions that seem to persist. Dario Aranda's blog [es] writes about the situation of the worker:

La distancia entre el hogar y el yerbal determina la hora de levantarse, siempre de madrugada, entre las 4 y las 6. Un camión recorre los barrios, sube a los trabajadores al acoplado y comienza la travesía. Pueden ser veinte kilómetros, también 40 o 50. A las 7 están en el yerbal, mojados por el rocío y la helada. Tijera o serrucho en mano, cortan las ramas pequeñas de la planta, acumulan las hojas sobre plásticos abiertos como mantel que esperan en el piso. Luego se unen las puntas del plástico y forman una gran bolsa, el “raído”, cien kilos, 20 pesos. Un tarefero experimentado, y con suerte, puede hacer cuatro raídos al día, 80 pesos de salario bruto, con descuentos se transforma en 60 pesos en mano, por jornadas de nueve a doce horas: equivale a tres kilos de yerba.

The distance between the home and the yerba field determines the hour they wake up, always in the wee hours of the morning, between 4 and 6. A bus passes through neighborhoods, picks up the workers at the muster point and the journey begins. It could be 20 kilometres, or even 40 or 50. At 7 they get to the field, wet with dew and freezing. Scissors or hand saws in hand, they cut the small branches of the plant, collect the leaves on open plastic sheets like table cloths spread on the ground. Later, they pull the ends of the plastic together to form a bag, the “raído”, or yerba bundles, 100 kilos, 20 pesos. An experienced tarefero, and a lucky one at that, can make four raídos a day, 80 pesos in gross salary, which ends up being 60 pesos in hand, for a nine to twelve hour day: that is equivalent to three kilograms of yerba mate.

Alternatively, the Secretariat of the Federation of Agriculture, a private entity that deals in the labour issues affecting small and big producers, declares in Urgente24.com [es]:

imposible mantener en blanco al personal. Esto más allá de que la AFIP diga que se debe mantener en blanco a los tareferos, que son quienes hacen la cosecha de yerba mate.

[it is] impossible to keep the personnel registered as legal employees. Altough the AFIP says that the tareferos, who harvest the yerba mate, ought to be registered as employees.

The Universidad Nacional de Misiones [es] (National University of Misiones), a public and free institution, presented research [es] of the sector in the province of Misiones [es], its point of reference being new recruits in the area of Jardin America [es]. The results revealed the following:

fueron 1131 tareferos registrados, de los cuales el 84 % son varones cuyas edades oscilan entre 18 y 50 años.

De los datos registrados también se desprende que los jóvenes de 11 a 17 años, representan el 10 % de los tareferos (tarea u obra que se debe concluir en tiempo determinado; se hace por empresa o a destajo) de esta localidad, de los cuales el 50 % comenzó a tarefear entre los 5 y los 14 años y aprendió la tarea mayormente con sus padres.

De ese total de 1131, el 60 % alcanzó un nivel educativo -primaria o EGB- y casi el 83 % lee y escribe.

En cuanto al pago más del 80 % manifestó que se le paga en dinero y por familia recolectan un promedio de 1300 kilos por día.

there were 1131 registered tareferos, of which 84% are male and are between the ages of 18 and 50 years of age.

From the registered data, youths between 11 and 17 years of age account for 10% of the tareferos (a tasks that must be finished at a determined time; it is either done for a company or on contract) in this area, of which 50% begin to do this kind of job between the age of 5 and 14 and they learn mainly from their parents.

Of this total of 1131, 60% have reached one level of education- primary or Basic General Education (EGB)- and almost 83% read and write.

In terms of salary, more than 80% manifested that money is paid in cash and each family collects a daily average of 1300 kilos.

The Misiones controversy seems endless with the issue of the price of yerba mate and the conditions of the workers.

Garganta del Diablo - Cataratas del Iguazú - Foto: Laura Schneider

Garganta del Diablo – Iguazú Falls- Photo by: Laura Schneider

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