Alfredo Zambrano’s alarm clock rings at 3:30 in the morning, and there is no time to lose. At four o’clock, he has to be on a farm in Perico, a small tobacco town located in the province of Jujuy. There he will work until 12 noon collecting leaves under the penetrating sun from the north of Argentina, filling bundles —baskets— that he will exchange with his patrons for about 45 pesos each. On average, filling each container will take 10-15 minutes, depending on whether the tobacco leaves are green or more mature.
In the Perico crops, the words “salary”, “Christmas bonus”, “holiday”, “seniority” and “vacations” do not exist: “They pay what you do in the day, nothing more”says the peasant. Obviously getting sick is not an option. If Zambrano is excited and has a good day, he can get between 2,500 and 3,000 pesos (25 and 30 dollars, respectively), figures that his wife and children will not despise.
When the harvest season is over, he must leave town, offering the only thing he has: his labor. Is that, for the circuit to continue working, this 44-year-old rural laborer already has armed a tour of different jurisdictions, to be busy all year round, under a practice adopted by thousands of people in the South American country. He is, what is called, a ‘swallow’ worker.
Alfredo starts the year in Perico, where he lives, and in February he moves to the small town of Cerrillos, Salta province, to continue with tobacco. Between March and April, he goes to the department of Ledesma, where the company of the same name is located, to gather lemons and other citrus fruits. In June, the Valencia season begins, a type of orange that is exported to Europe. There it continues until September or October, and then returns to Perico to restart the cycle, when the tobacco season restarts. But, nobody gets used to this: “I get on badly with this life. I have to go, leave the family, separate. All I do is work, “he says.
In Ledesma, the precarious situation decreases only a little. That food giant at least gives her per diem and a bonus, but she takes it out of the system in the months she doesn’t work. With the promise of guaranteeing his source of work when the harvest is resumed, during his absence the company does not pay the contributions to the State, something that will negatively impact the day Zambrano decides to retire and become a pensioner.
Hundreds of northern workers are going to work at this firm, implicated in the ‘Ledesma blackout’ – the kidnapping of 400 people during an intentional power outage under the last dictatorship. Alfredo and his family are transported by buses to a camp, and each one carries his own mattress. There they receive a modest piece, with sheet metal roof and door, where they go to sleep counting the nights until they return home.
Semi empty villages
The Ledesma department is strategic. Many ‘swallows’ start their entire journey there, due to its geographical location and the length of the citrus season — six months — one of the longest. When there is activity, in the towns and small cities of the area the movement is noticeable. But when the harvest is over, “everything is emptier”, describes Benjamín Ramírez, zonal secretary of the Argentine Union of Rural Workers and Longshoremen (UATRE).
There, of the 1,872 temporary peasants, half emigrate to other provinces frequently, leaving children without fathers and wives without husbands. Before the pandemic, some managed to mobilize their entire family, in complicated logistics.
Ramírez, if you know anything about it, it’s citrus fruit. Before he was a union leader, he spent eight years gathering lemons, oranges and grapefruits, but he also bounced from town to town, even looking for vegetables. Almost divine, one day he was selected by the Ledesma employers to move to the crop sector, eliminating the need to move. “Out of 2,500 workers, they only elect about 100,” he says.
He performed so well at this task that the bosses told him to stay permanently, doing pruning, watering and all the plant care. From there, as if it were a reward, the supervisors chose him to work in the packaging area: “Supposedly it was a little better, for not being exposed to the sun,” he says. However, there he also noticed several irregularities in working conditions.
Having gone through different positions earned him becoming known among his colleagues, until he was able to represent them in the union, a union that was already characterized by doing little and nothing against slave labor, among other scourges of the Argentine countryside. In addition, it helped him to identify typical employer gadgets: “Collecting lemons, the peasants make 45 baskets a day, at 1,750 pesos (17 dollars). They say that each one weighs 18 kilos, but there are suitcases that weigh 19 or 20, and the worker does not go with a scale. when the company benefits. In a day, per 100 or 1,000 workers, imagine how many tons [gratis] they come together “.
As a trade unionist, he also identified situations of child labor, another classic of the sector. It is that, to get a moderately worthy money, several peasants take their relatives to the farm, adding more hands to collect: “A worker, put him, in the zucchini harvest, to earn two or three wages he takes the woman and her three children, some being minors, “he says. But when the unionists complain, the response of the landowners suggests that another law is in force in the north: “It is up to him, if he wants to do more, take his family,” they reply. This is piecework.
The stranded in the field
In various sections of the pandemic, the media focused their attention on tourists and travelers in general who could not return to the South American country due to sanitary measures, in the midst of a border closure. But, indoors, hardly anyone laid eyes on the thousands of ‘swallows’ that got trapped in lands far from their families, with poor housing conditions, without work and in a delicate economic situation, spending what little they had earned.
Although the number of peasants stranded in rural lands was not exactly known, in the hardest moments of the mandatory quarantine some sent messages of help on social networks: “Governor, put your hand on your heart”Begged in April 2020 a man who had departed from Jujuy to the distant province of Mendoza – known for its grapes – and had stayed there. In his video, where he asked for state aid to be able to return, a deteriorated room is seen, with at least three mattresses on the floor.
Likewise, being stranded is not an exclusive phenomenon of the health emergency. Many times the bosses fail to fulfill their promise to pay for return tickets and the ruralistas must manage to cross several provinces to reach their home. Others, the peasants do not find work when they arrive at their destination and must wait until an opportunity arises, or find a way to go to another territory. It is that, many ‘swallows’ travel without the certainty of having a guaranteed position in the field, because it is worse to remain unemployed.
Elena Mingo, a sociologist and researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), tells RT that the State has “survey difficulties” to calculate how many people are in this situation at the national level. However, with the available data, he estimates that they are about 350,000 peasants those who tour Argentina every year under this modality.
Although there are few reports due to its informal characteristics, some publications allow us to learn more about this sector of the economy. In 2013, the National Registry of Agrarian Workers and Employers (RENATEA) launched a survey in Santiago del Estero, a province with many peasants. Of the 1,870 nomads consulted, 12% responded that at the time of being hired nor did he know what his destiny would be, demonstrating the ignorance of their labor rights. Worse yet, 24% I did not know the specific task that I was going to carry out.
In general, the vast majority of swallows from Santiago go to Buenos Aires, Catamarca and Entre Ríos, towards corn and blueberry fields, to a lesser extent. Of the participants, more than half were recruited by a ‘ringleader’, who is in charge of selecting the personnel, and 36% by a producer or foreman: “The leader usually works alongside the laborers that he himself summoned, but unlike these, he receives a bonus according to productive performance. The foreman On the contrary, he is the one who supervises the work of the crews, “the publication explains. It is estimated that some 40,000 ‘swallows’ leave Santiago del Estero every year.
In this area, working conditions worsen along with the economic crises that the country is going through. Academics from the National University of that province have already pointed out that between the neoliberal wave of the 90s and the social outbreak that lasted until 2002, unemployment and informal work grew, promoting agrarian precariousness. A similar context is currently being experienced, with at least five years of economic decline, exponentiated by the coronavirus. In this regard, the implications in the field have yet to be studied.
The ‘swallow’ that disappeared after claiming
Nomads also have their martyr: Daniel Solano, a young Guaraní from the city of Tartagal, Salta, who like many Northerners of indigenous origin, was working in the south. He had traveled to Choele Choel, Río Negro province, at the request of the Agrocosecha company. It was an outsourcing, under the wing of the multinational Expofrut Argentina, which at that time was a leader in exports, but still made indirect contracts.
Solano was one of the few peasants, or perhaps the only one, who had finished high school. And when he was handed his pay stub, he noticed the first inconsistencies: they had paid him the wrong salary. That is, in that document Agrocosecha would have said that he worked only five days, although in truth there had been 20, possibly keeping the difference of the money from Expofrut. Later, it was reported that this practice was extended to all personnel.
Thus, Daniel committed the audacity to complain at the Agrocosecha offices, being an exception to the general rule, and even encouraged other colleagues to do the same. After raising his voice, the ruralista was having fun in a bar called Macuba, in the early morning of November 5, 2011, until the Police broke into the place and took him into custody by force. never heard from him again.
At the beginning of the case they wanted to install the idea that the aborigine, allegedly intoxicated, would have molested a girl, but his relatives, friends and plaintiff lawyers are sure that it was corporate retaliation, in complicity with state and judicial officials. Now, ten years after this emblematic case, the seven officers involved – all sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018 – remain free, while the case is reviewed by the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation.
In the documentary ‘Where is Daniel Solano ?: diary of a cause’, all the obstacles that were in the investigation are exposed, but there are also images of the Expofrut sheds where the ‘swallows’ are housed, in deplorable conditions. The film record was taken in 2013 by a worker from Orán, Salta, who shows the deteriorated spaces of the place: “Four bathrooms”, he says, for almost 100 people.
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