Electronic job

“We workers want dignified and well-paid work.”

On the occasion of International Workers’ Day, Sonia Lemos, general secretary of the Tareferos union, shares the life, feelings and struggles of yerba mate pickers. Organizing to demand rights, the role of women and the rejection of union bureaucracy, bosses and complicit governments. Dignity as a synonym of tarefera.

By Sonia Lemos, of Montecarlo, Misiones. Tierra Viva Agency

My name is Sonia Lemos, I am the General Secretary of Union Tareferos de Montercarlo, Misiones. I am 41 years old and I was born in the Cuatro Bocas neighborhood of Montecarlo. I didn’t have a good childhood. At that time, there were no doctors and we had no hospitals, so I was born at home. We are ten brothers and sisters, four girls and six boys. At that time, we carried our school things in a noodle bag and walked barefoot. My father worked in the dryer of the Cooperativa Agrícola Mixta de Montecarlo. He was a tarefero: he picked up yerba mate leaves. The cooperative was the boss here, they owned the crews that went to the yerba mate fields and the dryer. Over time, the activity began to be outsourced to contractors. Around this time in the early 1990s my dad started having seizures and when I was 12 I started going to yerbal with him. I left school in second grade and went to work with him because when he had seizures I had to go to my classmates to help him. Then I learned the trade of tarefera. My mother and father drank a lot, sometimes they didn’t know each other. I was the eldest of the siblings, we didn’t have a gas or wood stove, or an electric light. That’s how I grew up.

At 16 I got together, I have four children: two girls and two boys. I have never stopped working, to this day. When I was pregnant, I didn’t work but I made things to sell, like empanadas or marineras. I sold them to the cooperative, in the dryer. I never stayed, I always liked to defend myself because at that time I saw how it was: it was a very macho time, women stayed at home, men went out. I always had in mind that it didn’t have to be like that. At that time, I met Rubén Ortíz, to protest against certain allowances that were withdrawn from us. It was during a meeting in Montecarlo, I spoke to him, he asked me what I was doing. And to me, it was amazing that a fellow teacher was interested in humble, hard-working, hard-working people. Here in the area, no one wanted to approach us or ask what was going on. So I admire Rubén a lot because he gave weight, he gave his back and so far he never gave up the fight.

Every day I get up at 4am, we prepare the matula, which is the food, and my mate, which I transport in the truck. We have benches in the truck where we sit and drink our mate. The comrades are tired, they always get up at the same time. We go on the road because we don’t only work in Monte-Carlo, we have different places where we will work. We come home from work at six or seven in the evening and then we are tired, we bathe and eat. Sometimes you eat, sometimes you don’t. And then I go to bed because the work is exhausting. But hey, it’s an obligation because they have to be removed from the family. I apologized to my kids because many times I wasn’t at school events, at those things where as a parent you have to be there. That’s what you have left. In the yerbal we are cold, when there is frost we get wet, it affects the body. Today my bones hurt but I know it’s because of my job, the only job I know how to do, and that’s why I keep going.

Photo Subcoop/Tierra Viva Agency

Low wages, occupational diseases and slavery

As tareferos, we know what suffering is: the cold, the rain, getting up at dawn and arriving home late. You are almost never with your children, because of work. When my son dropped out of school, it hurt me a lot, I didn’t want him to drop out. I wanted him to study so that he could have a better job than ours, because this job makes you sick. But hey, he’s still working and he already has a family, so ours is a working family. My children stopped studying because they took away our family allowances and we weren’t earning anything from our work. It was therefore difficult to make them study. There was not enough money to buy shoes for the four of us, always for one of us. We had to pay for electricity and water.

Today we are paid 610 pesos for every hundred kilos we collect. In addition we make discounts for retirement and social security and that leaves 450 pesos per hundred kilos. Now, with the drought we’ve had, we only receive 300 pesos at most because there is little yerba mate. And there we pay 500 pesos per kilo of yerba mate. With a raído (one hundred kilos), you don’t even earn enough to buy a packet of yerba. We don’t agree with how the price of the product goes up because it’s set by people who don’t know about yerba or life in our city. They don’t know what we are suffering and there is no political force to change that. We workers are not interested, because if someone was interested in us, we would do something about it.

The first common illness among tareferos is a herniated disc due to lifting too much weight. The second, from any scissors or saws, is pain or cracks in the hands or fingers. Your hands creak because they are wet and you continue to saw. We cure this with the same yerba mate, which we boil and cool and rub on our skin. But sometimes you have to go to the doctor because the pain is very strong and you can’t bear it. We have social security but it’s as if we don’t have any: it’s the Social Security for Rural Workers and Dockworkers of the Argentine Republic, which never works. Our comrades had accidents, they were beaten, they had herniated discs and it has never been recognized to this day.

In the yerbales there is a lot of forced labor but the comrades who live in this situation do not want to talk about it. I approached them but they don’t want to report it because they are afraid of not being called to work anymore. Today, the situation is bad enough to lose that income in the house, so they say they have no other way out. When we call the Ministry of Labour, we are told that there are five or six employees and that they cannot be everywhere. They tell us to report them but we can’t do their job because afterwards they don’t take us to work. For example, the Montecarlo Cooperative has drawn up a red list of those who denounce the employer, and those who denounce the employer do not get into the entrepreneur’s truck. It’s a very bad pressure. I hope that the government will take notice so that all this changes. We are already in 2022 and there must be a change. We keep fighting and pushing from here.

There should also be control over access to land, which has never been the case. Today, land is an opportunity for workers, because it is what we plant to consume and sell. At least I have land where I plant vegetables and cassava. This is what I consume and sell to be able to continue, because when the harvest stops, we find ourselves without work. There are six months of harvest – usually March or April to October – after which we are all left with nothing. In our case, the colono, that is to say the one who plants the yerba mate, still does not want to start the harvest, so we have been working since May. Today we are unemployed. Meanwhile, in the summer, when there is no harvest, poisons are used in the plantations.

Photo Subcoop/Tierra Viva Agency

Learn to fight for rights

In 2009 we formed the Union Tareferos de Montecarlo and it helped me a lot, I learned to read and I know what is on my payslip, what is the percentage and all these things. We have learned our rights and we are no longer silent. Now we raise our voices. Before, we couldn’t complain because it was mostly men and the boss said things we didn’t understand and we were silent. But now we speak louder than the boss.

A year later, in 2010, we started requiring work clothes. Before, we loaded the yerba by hand. With the union we got the sacadora, the enganchador and the loader. Before, we removed them with the back. In this sense, there have been many changes.

Nowadays, there are no miners in the harvest; it was forbidden, but before we did it: we all worked. We started early, when we were 13 or 15 years old. This is why we ask for an evening school to complete secondary and primary. But the schools must be in the colonies because the ones we have are quite far away. You have to go there by bus and the buses do not go to our colony.

Today we want to have a decent job, well paid, with controls. The Unión Argentina de Trabajadores Rurales y Estibadores (Uatre) gives us discounts, collects money and where does this money go? Uatre is supposed to represent us, but he was never there. That’s why we formed another union. The road is still long, but we are rowing and we are not going to stop there. We will continue to fight for work and a decent wage so that we all benefit. Thanks to the Monte-Carlo union, there have been many achievements, not everything we wanted, but we continue to fight.

Tareferas, reaper women

In the yerbales, I learned a lot from my fellow tareferas because we shared our meals, we sat down to drink mate and we became confidants. We told each other our problems, what was happening at home, what our children lacked, what we lacked. I was listening and there were women who were also victims of violence. For me, it was a great example because through everything I experienced and heard from my colleagues, I learned to see beyond. I made the decision to stay in the union, without looking back and fighting for our demands. We know it is not easy but the examples of these mothers give me the strength to continue. I’m talking about single mothers, with ten children, who have taken the lead and for me they are an example. At that time it was not easy, now there are psychologists, there is support. Before, we only had to work, but today a pregnant colleague already has her universal family allowance.

We charged the same as the men, we took them away in wheelbarrows. Today I think “look at the workers, how they put up with this”. At the time, there were situations of harassment on the crews and these things were tolerated because we didn’t know how to go about it and how to complain. But today we raise our voices and it’s different, we don’t allow these things anymore.

We support everything. There was a lot of pressure. Twice we went to two yerba mate plantations and they said to me “look Sonia, the settler doesn’t want women here because they have their periods and they dry out the plants”. And me, so that my colleagues continue to work, I said to them: “Well, I don’t work, but pay me my salary anyway”. Before, we were silent, we sat without saying anything. Now no more. We know our rights and we are no longer silent.