Argentina: agribusinesses accused of enslaving workers

Labor ministry inspectors from the Argentine national government and the Buenos Aires provincial government said they found 199 farm workers in conditions close to slavery during raids carried out at the end of December and the beginning of January on estates in the area of San Pedro, about 100 kilometers west of the national capital. The inspectors said 130 of the laborers, including some 30 children and adolescents, were producing for the Dutch-based multinational Nidera, and 69 were producing for the Argentine company Southern Seeds Production SA; the workers appear to have been subcontracted through temporary agencies.

The labor ministries charged that the workers were recruited from the northern provinces of Santiago de Estero and Tucumán without being told where they were going or how much they would be paid. After arriving in Buenos Aires province, the workers were kept in inadequate housing, including trucks, in unsanitary conditions, and were not allowed to leave the farms, according to the ministries; food and other necessities were deducted from their wages, at exorbitant prices. Labor ministry officials estimated that at least 1,000 people were working in these conditions in the San Pedro area alone.

Another 274 workers were found in similar conditions during raids on farms in Ramallo and Arrecifes, Buenos Aires province, on the morning of Jan. 7.

Nidera’s Argentine subsidiary is the country’s leading seed supplier and one of the largest exporters of grains and vegetable oils. In 1996 it was the first Argentine company to obtain permission to market genetically modified soy. The government of President Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner charges that the company has evaded paying $260 million pesos (about $63 million) in taxes. Soy producers staged a major national strike in early 2008, eventually defeating efforts by the government of President Fern├índez to raise the tax on soy exports from 34% to 44%.

According to press reports, the Union of Rural Workers and Dockers (UATRE) has been complicit in the hiring of the temporary workers. Union leader Gerónimo Venegas is active in the right wing of the Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist), in opposition to Fernández, a left Justicialist. (Página 12, Buenos Aires, Jan. 2, Jan. 7; La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 7)

Nidera “categorically denies” all the accusations that its “seed division in Argentina had employed temporary workers who were unregistered and exploited by the company.” (Nidera website, accessed Jan. 9)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 9.

See our last post on Argentina and slavery in the Southern Cone.