(IPS) - Crowded into precarious mud-floored dorms or sheet-metal trailers or forced to live in tents of plastic sheeting, with neither piped water nor electricity, after working 14-hour days: these are the harsh conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of rural workers in Argentina despite bumper crops and record earnings for agribusiness.
"They have no alternative but to accept work under these conditions," Reinaldo Ledesma, a leader of the Unión Solidaria de Comunidades del Pueblo Diaguita Cacano – an organisation representing the Diaguita Cacano indigenous community – in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, told IPS.
The conditions faced by casual farm workers have remained exploitative while industrial-scale plantations have grown in size and number, harvests have reached nearly 100 million tons, and more than 30 million hectares – 11 percent of the total land area in Argentina – are farmed.
Santiago del Estero, whose capital of the same name is located 1,150 km northwest of Buenos Aires, is one of the main sources of seasonal rural labourers who clear land, weed, manually spray or harvest crops for big agricultural corporations.
Nearly all of the members of the Unión Solidaria de Comunidades del Pueblo Diaguita Cacano depend on temporary farm work to survive, said Ledesma, who described the conditions they work in as "servitude."
The seasonal migration of farm workers is a centuries-old phenomenon in Argentina, one of the world's major agricultural producers. But in recent years it has taken on new characteristics, with global human resources firms operating as intermediaries for agribusiness corporations.
The recruiters offer the workers a contract for a fixed amount. But later they learn that the payment is conditioned on the entire group of workers earning a certain amount of arbitrarily set "points" based on performance and behaviour.
"The entire team has to work between 10 and 14 hours a day, Monday to Monday, even when it's raining, and without complaining because if someone protests, points are docked for every member of the group," Ledesma said.
In addition, the contractors discount the cost of transportation, clothing, work tools and food - at higher than market prices - from the worker's pay.
Ledesma said it is difficult for unions to advocate on behalf of migrant labourers, because although the workers are often organised in their hometowns, they are widely dispersed when they find work in the fields.
The worst jobs are the potato, asparagus, blueberry and olive harvests, he said, along with clearing out stumps and roots with picks, shovels and bare hands after the bulldozer has knocked down the trees and brush.
"They sleep on the ground under plastic roofs," he said. Most of the camps have no running water, electricity, toilets or showers. And in some cases, the workers are not allowed to leave the compound, under the threat of losing points.
This was found to be the case in most of the camps visited in different provinces by inspectors in recent months as part of a new government offensive.
One of the companies whose workers are housed in these conditions is the local unit of Netherlands-based agribusiness company Nidera, one of the world's largest grain dealers. The labourers were found to be packed into trailers, sheds or plastic tents, where they sometimes slept next to pesticide containers.
But the Dutch grain exporter, which is also a leading seed producer and distributor, is not the only company implicated. The Argentine agribusiness firms Southern Seeds Production and Status Ager and global employment agencies like the U.S.-based Manpower and the Switzerland-based Adecco have also been accused of labour exploitation.
"The same companies that push peasants and native people off their land to expand monoculture plantations later employ them as slave labour," Ledesma complained.
According to the Labour Ministry, 50 percent of rural workers are not enrolled in the social security system.
Labour and living conditions are especially harsh among unregistered migrant farm workers from impoverished northern provinces like Santiago del Estero and Tucumán, and from the neighbouring country of Bolivia, who find seasonal work in provinces such as Sante Fe, Misiones, Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Mendoza and Río Negro.
But the situation of registered workers is not much better. The great majority earn less than the minimum wage, according to the report "Rentabilidad, empleo y condiciones de trabajo en el sector agropecuario" (profitability, employment and working conditions in agriculture) released in February.
The study, by the Centre of Research and Training of the Argentine Republic (CIFRA), reports that in the last decade, agriculture has enjoyed "extraordinarily high profit levels, in historic terms."
Not only have international agricultural prices soared, but production costs have gone down and the value of land has risen 4.5 times in the most fertile land in central and northern Argentina, the authors report.
The study notes that during the 2002-2010 period, the primary agriculture sector accounted for 8.7 percent of GDP, while industry directly linked to agriculture contributed another 6.4 percent.
Nevertheless, the creation of jobs was fairly insignificant in that same period due to the growing mechanisation of agriculture, says the report, which also points to the high proportion of unregistered workers.
In this country of 40 million people, with a population that is 92 percent urban and an economically active population of 17.8 million, permanent or temporary rural workers total one million according to official figures, and 1.5 million according to rural trade unions.
CIFRA economist Mariana González stressed to IPS that farm workers employed in modern-day slavery conditions do not work for small companies but for transnational corporations that rake in billions in profits.
"Unregistered employment is common in this sector," she said. "That is partly because of the difficulties of oversight and monitoring due to the huge extensions of land, in isolated areas. But it has also come to be seen as something normal."
González said that in the economy in general, informal or black market employment has gone down, as it has in the countryside. But in rural areas it remains an especially serious problem.
The CIFRA report states that while unregistered employment stands at 36.5 percent in the economy at large, the proportion climbs to 60 percent in agriculture, and to as high as 94 percent in some specific sectors.
Sociologist Guillermo Neiman at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) told IPS that seasonal work in precarious conditions is a longstanding problem in Argentina.
Monitoring and inspection are difficult not only due to the distances involved and the spread-out nature of the rural workforce. "In the countryside, when an inspector shows up, it's easier to hide a worker than in a factory or a closed facility," he said.
But he noted that the problem has taken on a new visibility in the last few months, and said the workers themselves – many of whom are young people from cities, not just small towns – are daring to speak out.
Neiman, whose expertise is in the area of rural employment, also emphasised the government's greater commitment to improving oversight and the determination of the courts to crack down on rural servitude and human trafficking, through cases that have been filed.
President Cristina Fernández acknowledged that there is "illegal slave labour in subhuman conditions" in Argentina, when she launched a government programme on "digital registered work; real-time monitoring" in February.
Through the programme, the labour ministry and the tax collection agency, AFIP, are carrying out inspections of urban and rural establishments, using laptops with wireless connection that enable the agents to visit camps in remote areas and verify, in real time, working and housing conditions and whether or not workers are registered.
But the work has just begun, and it will not be a simple task. Neiman pointed out that hiring unregistered workers is a widespread practice among agribusiness companies in Argentina. "Some have up to 400 unregistered labourers working for three months at a time," he said.
Photo Courtesy of Estudios y Proyectos Asociación Civil