On International Workers’ Day, Sonia Lemos – General Secretary of the Tareferos Union – tells the story of the life, feelings and struggles of the yerba mate harvesters. Organising to demand rights, the role of women and the rejection of the union bureaucracy, the bosses and the complicit governments. Dignity as a synonym for tarefera.

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

My name is Sonia Lemos, I am the general secretary of the Tareferos Union of Montercarlo, Misiones. I am 41 years old and I was born in the Cuatro Bocas neighbourhood of Montecarlo. I did not have a good childhood. At that time there were no doctors and we didn’t have hospitals, so I was born at home. We are ten siblings, four girls and six boys. At that time, we carried our school things in a noodle bag and went barefoot. My father worked in the drying shed of the Cooperativa Agrícola Mixta de Montecarlo. He was a tarefero: he collected yerba mate leaves. The cooperative was the boss here, it owned the crews that went to the yerba mate fields and the drying shed. Over time, the activity began to be outsourced to contractors. At that time, in the early 1990s, my father began to have epileptic seizures and when I was 12 years old, I started to go with him to the yerbal. 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 job of tarefera. My mum and dad 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 cooker, nor electric light. That’s how I grew up.

At the age of 16 I got together, I have four children: two girls and two boys. I 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 in the cooperative, in the drying shed. I never stayed, I always liked to defend myself because at that time I could see how things were: it was a very macho time, women stayed at home, men went out. I always had in my mind that it didn’t have to be like that. At that time, I met Rubén Ortíz, in a protest against some allowances that were removed from us. It was at a meeting in Montecarlo, I got talking to him, he asked me what I was doing. And for me it was incredible that a fellow teacher should take an interest in humble, hard-working, working people. Here in the area nobody 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 until now he never gave up the struggle.

Every day I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, we prepare the matula, which is the food, and my mate, which I carry 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 work only in Montecarlo, we have different places where we go to work. We come back 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 well, it’s an obligation because you have to remove them from the family. I apologised to my children because many times I wasn’t at school events, at those things that as a parent you have to be there. That’s what you’re left with. In the yerbal we are cold, when there is frost, we get wet, it affects the body. Today I feel pain in my bones but I know it’s because of my work, the only work I know how to do, and that’s why I keep going.

Photo Subcoop/Agencia Tierra Viva

Low pay, occupational diseases and slavery

As tareferos we know what suffering is like: cold, rain, getting up at dawn and arriving home late. You are hardly ever with your children, because of the 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 well, he is still working and he already has a family, so ours is a working family. My children stopped studying because they removed our family allowances and we didn’t earn anything in our job. So, it was 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.

Nowadays we are paid 610 pesos for every hundred kilos we collect. On top of that we make discounts for retirement and social security and that leaves 450 pesos per hundred kilos. Now with the drought we have had, at most we get 300 pesos because there is little yerba mate. And here we are paying 500 pesos per kilo of yerba mate. With a raído (one hundred kilos) you can’t even make enough to buy a packet of yerba. We disagree with the way the price of the product is going up because it is set by people who don’t know yerba or what life is like in our town. They don’t know what we are suffering and there is no political force to change that. We, the workers, are not interested, because if someone were interested in us, something would be done about this.

The first common illness among the tareferos is a herniated disc from lifting too much weight. The second, because of all the scissors or saws, is pain or cracks in the hands or fingers. Your hands crack because they get wet and you keep on sawing. We cure that with the same yerba mate, which we boil and cool and rub it on our skin. But sometimes you have to go to the doctor because the pain is very strong and you can’t stand it. We have social security but it’s like not having it: it’s the Social Security for Rural Workers and Stevedores of the Argentine Republic, which never works. Our comrades had accidents, they were beaten, they got herniated discs and this has never been recognised to this day.

In the yerbales there is a lot of slave labour but the comrades who live in this situation don’t want to talk about it. I approached them but they don’t want to denounce it because they are afraid that they won’t be 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, they tell us that there are five or six employees and that they can’t be everywhere. They tell us to report them but we can’t do their work, because afterwards they don’t take us to work. For example, the Montecarlo Cooperative made a red list of those who denounce the employer, and those who denounce the employer don’t get on the contractor’s truck. It’s a really bad squeeze. I hope that the government becomes aware so that all this changes. We are already in 2022 and there has to be a change. We continue to fight and push from here.

There should also be control over access to land, which there never was. Today, land is an opportunity for the workers, because that is what we plant to consume and sell. At least I have a piece of land where I plant vegetables and manioc. That’s what I consume and sell to be able to keep going, because when the harvest stops, we are left without work. There are six months of harvesting – usually from March or April until October – afterwards we are all left with nothing. In our case, the colono, that is, the one who plants the yerba mate, still doesn’t want to start harvesting, so we’ve been working since May. Today we are unemployed. In the meantime, in the summer, when there is no harvest, poisons are used on the plantations.

Photo Subcoop/Agencia Tierra Viva

Learning to fight for rights

In 2009 we formed the Tareferos de Montecarlo Union and that helped me a lot, I learned to read and I know what is on my pay slip, what the percentage is and all those things. We learned our rights and we don’t keep quiet anymore. Now we raise our voices. Before, you couldn’t complain because it was mostly men and the boss said things we didn’t understand and we kept quiet. But now we speak louder than the boss.

A year afterwards, in 2010, we started to demand work clothes. Before, we used to charge the yerba by hand. With the union we got the sacadora, the enganchador and the loader. Before, we used to remove them with our backs. In that sense there has been a lot of change.

Nowadays there are no minors in the harvest; that was forbidden, but before we did: we all worked. We started early, from the age of 13 or 15. That’s why we are asking for a night school to finish secondary and primary school. But the schools have to be in the colonies because the ones we have are quite far away. You have to go by bus and the buses don’t 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 that money go? Uatre is supposed to represent us, but it was never there. That’s why we formed another union. There is still a long way to go, but we are rowing and we are not going to stop here. We will continue to fight for work and a living wage so that we all benefit. Through the Montecarlo union there have been many achievements, not everything we wanted, but we continue to fight.

Tareferas, women harvesters

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 would tell each other our problems, what was going on in our homes, what our children were lacking, what we were lacking. 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 force to continue. I am talking about single mothers, with ten children, who got ahead 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 colleague who is pregnant already has her universal child allowance.

We used to charge the same as the men, we removed them in wheelbarrows. Today I think “look at the women workers, how they put up with it”. In those days, there were situations of harassment on the crews and those things were put up with because we didn’t know how to deal with it and how to complain. But nowadays we raise our voices and it’s different, we don’t allow these things anymore.

We put up with everything. There was a lot of pressure. On two occasions we went to two yerba mate plantations and they told me “look Sonia, the colonist doesn’t want women here because they are menstruating and they dry out the plants”. And I, so that my colleagues would continue working, told them: “Well, I don’t work, but pay me my wages anyway”. Before, we kept quiet, we just sat there without saying anything. Now no more. We know our rights and we don’t keep quiet any more.