For most people around the world, ‘mate’ is something intriguing, even unknown, especially when they first visit Argentina and meet someone carrying boiling water in a thermos, pouring it in some dry grass and, not only drinking from it using some kind of metallic straw, but also sharing it, continuously. The flavor is not easy to describe, considering all the different mate herbs there exist and the blends people add, from sugar and cinnamon, to coffee, tea and lemon skin, to name but a few. If you ask someone about it, they will tell you mate tastes like mate, however, none would claim that it also would leave a sour taste in the mouth. The taste of pain, sweat, child labor and injustice.
In the provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, in the northeast region of Argentina, and one of the poorest, a 60% of world production of yerba mate is harvested every year. Together, with soy and livestock production, they are by far the most profitable agricultural activities in the country, along with a huge domestic consumption and export levels.
Far away from being benefited by these large-scale activities, there are hundreds of ‘tareferos’; cheap labor force, working men, women and children, who represent the first link in this Argentinian production chain.
The term ‘tareferos’ comes from the Portuguese ‘tarefa’ – ‘task’ in English. Their job consists of spending 10 hours a day under the sun, picking with their bare hands hundreds of kilos of yerba mate leaves, that then they separate into smaller packages of 75k to 100k each. These packages are then carried on their backs, to be weighed by a foreman, who will determine the pay according to the amount of yerba mate kilos obtained in a day’s work.
A little more than twenty years ago, tareferos were part of the rural population of these provinces, but in the nineties the situation changed and there was a crisis after the deregulation of the activity. This led to the overproduction and subsequent deterioration of prices, deepening the process of concentration of the industrial and commercial sector of yerba mate. Despite attempts by the Misiones Cabinet to intervene in the yerba mate industry and economy, being in the midst of Argentine economic crisis for ten years after the deregulation, the medium-term results were inconsistent. During this crisis, entire families of tareferos had to move to illegal villages in the interior of the province, becoming a poor and marginalized sector.
Not until 2009, the population of tareferos in Misiones province was surveyed, and the results did nothing but highlight the precarious situation in which they live.
The working day for tareferos starts early in the morning, by 4-5 am, when a truck picks them from the camps built near the banks of the yerbatales. They arrive to the plantation, moist with dew and frost, which eases the process of recollection of leaves. Apart from their bare hands, the only tools they use are pruning shears. By the end of 2012, for 500k of yerba mate in a day of work – something only possible for the strongest men – tareferos would receive a monthly salary between u$s 150 and 200.
From the price of each kilo or yerba mate, 25% is distributed among the State, the producer, the contractor and the tareferos, leaving the remaining 75% for the large companies that are in charge of the distribution of the product.
According to the rural union UATRE, the irregularities in the yerba mate harvest in Argentina (2005), involve about 25,000 people, of whom 49% are outside the legal labor market. This is the reason why the job of thousand tareferos is affected by problems such as slave labor, lack of access to basic services, precarious housing and child labor.
In February 2017, tareferos from Andresito and Oberá protested for several days blocking avenues and provincial routes in Misiones, claiming their right to receive a decent wage.