Argentina: Slave labor in the fields

Página/12 photo

[Abridged translations of two articles, the first from Página/12 of Buenos Aires for January 2, the second from La Jornada of Mexico City for January 8. See original articles here and here.]

Slave labor for an elusive grain dealer

By Horacio Verbitsky

The operation carried out in San Pedro on December 30 illustrates what is possible in uncontrolled markets. Nidera, a transnational grain company that the AFIP [Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos – Federal Public Revenue Administration] has charged with tax evasion amounting to 260 million pesos, had confined 130 workers from the north, adults and adolescents, who did not know where they were, could not leave, had no electric lights or water and were charged exorbitant prices, deducted from the salaries they had accrued, for food the company sold them, including pasta from the Scioli social services plan.

One of the large exporters of agricultural products, which the national government is investigating for tax evasion, was exploiting the slave labor of adults and children brought in from norther provinces. It housed them in sheet-metal trailors, in which twenty would sleep crowded together. The work day was ten hours long, including Christmas day, under the sun, with no electric lights and no drinking water except what they carried in buckets.  They could not leave the property they were working on nor did they know how much they would be paid. Pay was put off until the last day of the informal contract, since they were not registered. Meanwhile, money was subtracted for everything they consumed at such exorbitant rates that they never had any accrued salary left. They were charged 80 pesos for a bag of potatoes, 65 for onions, 54 for a chicken, 17 for a package of cigarettes, eight for a kilo of stale bread and two to recharge the batteries on their cell phones. Also found was pasta with the label of the Ministry of Social Development. For a package, the sale of which is illegal, the slaves were charged 35 pesos… Outdated food was also found. The only money they received in the three weeks preceding the raid was 12 pesos “to buy pastries.” The provincial minister of labor, Óscar Cuartango, said the events uncovered approached crimes against humanity.

A thousand

The camp housed 130 people, among them some 30 children and adolescents, but authorities believe there are at least a thousand more in the same conditions, in other camps near San Pedro. Union representation for them is in the jurisdiction of the Unión de Trabajadores Rurales y Estibadores, UATRE [Union of Rural Workers and Stevedores], led by Gerónimo Venegas, founder, together with José Luis Barrionuevo of the so-called CGT Azul y Blanco [Confederación General del Trabajo Azul y Blanco]. Delegates from the UATRE arrived at the location promptly once the leader of the Unidad Fiscal de Investigaciones No. 6 of San Nicolás, Rubén Darío Giagnorio, notified the ministry of labor of the situation. The UATRE representative in San Pedro, Cecilio Salazar, is the local leader of the Peronist opposition. One of his best known activities has been the UATRE sponsorship of the Pichi Iglesias auto race track, which provoked criticism in a union with very poor members. At the beginning of December, Giagnorio ordered the rural patrol of the town of Doyle to patrol the camps of the area in search of irregular situations in the corn harvest, which are usual at this time of year, when temporary workers are brought in from the interior…

As a priest who practices his calling for the poor in Haiti wrote in his message of December 31, there are places and people who, more than a new year, need a new life. This is in sad contrast with the euphoric Argentina of consumption and pleasure that filled all the roads out of the big cities beginning on Thursday afternoon.

Subjugation in servitude

Once it had verified the very serious conditions the workers were found in, the prosecutor initiated actions for subjugation to servitude and misappropriation of public goods. On the other hand, it does not have the authority to investigate human trafficking… According to that authority, Nidera will have to pay 5000 pesos in fines for each worker not registered. Among those detained are Nidera engineers Nicolás Martínez Allende and Diego Carballo, two foremen and three managers in charge of the distribution of food. The prosecutor took their statements and released them while the investigation is continuing.

A concentration camp

Physician Julio Caraballo, director of Bromatología de San Pedro, told a local radio station that the conditions were those of a concentration camp, with two holes in the floor as toilets, enclosed only by a curtain made of Nidera sacks sewn together. He also saw an adolescent bathing in water carried in a container used for agricultural poisons. “It’s enough to move one from indignation to tears,” he said. Food was distributed by Comat, S.A., belonging to the former radical San Pedro alderman Abel González. The same group includes the Compañía Argentina de Recursos Humanos y Soluciones Agropecuarias [Argentine Human Resources and Agricultural Solutions Company], which performs contracting services for temporary workers for agricultural businesses. Nidera was paying Comat 24 pesos a day per person. But the prices charged the workers were so high that they always exceded the daily amount agreed on…

The recruitment of very poor persons was carried out in Santiago del Estero, with the promise of work in the corn harvest in [the Province of ] Buenos Aires, “in the best company,” in appropriate working conditions and at a good salary. A bus caried them directly to the location, from which, once they arrived, they were not allowed to leave. Nidera let them know that if anyone left the location, the entire work team they were part of would be taken back to their villages without pay. When questioned for this article, the prosecutor added that these persons “did not even know where they were”… The national Ministerio de Desarrollo Social [Ministry of Social Devopment] took charge of taking the workers back to their villages of origin, where they will be under the care of provincial authorities…

A leading company

Nidera is a transnational company, a leader in the Argentine grain market and one of the major exporters of oils, grains and oil products. Its activities account for about ten percent of total Argentine exports of these products. In 1996, during the tenure of Felipe Carlos Solá as secretary of agriculture, it was the first to be authorized to release for human consumption transgenic soy beans resistant to glyphosate…

In 2010 it was the sixth largest exporter of grains (after Cargill, Bunge, ADM, Dreyfus and Toeper) and the seventh in subproducts and oils (after Cargill, Bunge, AGD, Dreyfus, Molinos and Vicentín). Nidera is the leading company in the soy and sunflower seed markets, is in second place in corn and in third place in wheat…

Nidera in action

The president of global Nidera, Martín Mayer Wolf, of one of the founding families, is a supporters of Acción Nacional, a private non-profit organization whose mission is to aid people to escape from poverty through their own work. “By extending microcredits, business training and other financiual services to poor men and women who start their own businesses, [the organization] helps these people to achieve a level on the economic scale with dignity and pride,” it states in its document, “El negocio de luchar contra la pobreza” [“The business of struggling against poverty”]…


La Jornada photo

Five hundred “slaves” rescued in the past few days from the fields of Argentina

Buenos Aires – In the past few days Argentine authorities have found at least 500 farm workers performing slave labor in soy and corn fields in the rich humid Argentine Pampa, the federal minister of labor reported today.

The latest judicial operation on Friday resulted in the discovery of some 276 campesinos laboring under conditions of “subjugation in servitude” on three agricultural operations in the Province of Buenos Aires, in the heart of the humid Pampa, state authorities declared.

On the largest rural establishment of the three that were discovered, belonging to the Status Ager company, near Ramallo (195 kilometers to the north), some 150 campesinos, including nine minors, “were subjugated in servitude” and lived “in sheet metal huts in the full sun without electrical power or safety measures,” the ministry specified.

The inspectors found food in a decayed state in a cage used to store beef, which was hung “over containers used for fumigation.”

The remaining 126 rural peons were found in similar conditions in other camps on the humid Pampa.

The laborers had been promised payment of 2,700 pesos (675 dollars) for every hectare worked but when they arrived at the fields, the figure was reduced to 1,300 pesos (325 dollars), although they were still charged for food, it was stated.

Most of the campesinos were from the northern provinces of Santiago del Estero and Tucumán.

Status Ager is a producer of soy and corn that are exported to Europe, the United States and Canada and its operations cover 6,500 hectares, according to their web page.

Argentina is the third largest exporter in the world of soy (it brings in six billion dollars annually), the second in corn and the fourth in wheat.

Soy, the cultivation of which covers some 18 million hectares, is also the principal export product of Argentina.