Exploring the Dialectic of Labor Rights and Food Sovereignty

Exploring the Dialectic of Labor Rights and Food Sovereignty in Everyday Work Conflicts of Argentina´s Yerba mate Country
01 January 2013
Policy briefing

Should the principles of food sovereignty be folded into the construction and enforcement of labor and employment laws? How can workers´ rights as envisioned by the ILO be coupled with fundamental precepts of food sovereignty in everyday working life at the site of food production?

This paper speaks to broad but urgent questions: Should the principles of food sovereignty be folded into the construction and enforcement of labor and employment laws? How can workers´ rights as envisioned by the ILO be coupled with fundamental precepts of food sovereignty in everyday working life at the site of food production?

With these questions in mind, I examine every day Argentine politics of yerba mate (a green tea) where it is grown in the poor, Northeastern province of Misiones. Yerba mate is consumed in nearly 100% of Argentine households. It is considered a staple food, and is relied especially on by poor Argentines when food is scarce. But few consumers of the tea are aware of the working conditions under which smallholders and wage laborers work in Misiones. In what was once a vibrant landscape of small farms, neoliberal reforms from the 1990s still wreak havoc in the countryside. More and more small producers of yerba are selling their farms or have converted them to monocultural non-food crops such as the American pine used in regional paper mills.

Land consolidation continues to intensify as does rural exodus. As farms are threatened, so too are models of family agriculture that have functioned for generations. In the past, both smallholders and wage laborers managed to produce food for themselves with little state intervention.

At the heart of contemporary labor conflicts in the countryside is the state´s effort to decrease the amount of trabajo en negro, or work under the table, in which workers and employers do not pay taxes and workers receive no benefits. By most estimates, 70% of rural workers still work under the table and unfair labor practices abound. In addressing the relationship between food sovereignty and workers’ rights, I examine two movements.

First, I explore the agrarian organizing that has joined together landless workers and small farmers who promote the principles of food sovereignty in the spirit of movements such as La Vía Campesina, with much focus on agroecology, per Altieri and company.

Second, I analyze the more recent organizing on the part of yerba harvesters that has pushed for improved labor rights even as small producers press back. Drawing on fieldwork conducted since 2008 as well as cross training in law and social work, I argue that Argentina´s supposedly worker friendly labor laws actually have a pernicious effect on the livelihood of low income workers and smallholders in the countryside. Caught in a symbiotic relationship, rural workers and smallholders cannot live without one another, yet their cohabitation in the work day is replete with tensions, intimidations, fear of lawsuits, and fallings out. Labor laws that were designed for industrial sector production assume abundant capital on the part of employers, ignoring the dearth and unpredictability of small farm income.

Principles of food sovereignty are ignored for the most part. As a result, small yerba farmers often cannot afford to hire harvesters of yerba because of limited capital, state taxes and potential fines. Low wage harvesters in turn struggle with unemployment and are forced to rely on state welfare even as they flee the countryside. In doing so, they often abandon family agriculture.

Finally, I argue that the rights of both producers and workers have to be considered together if the Argentine state is serious about curbing the continuing stream of rural exodus, resolving long-term unemployment and welfare reliance, and ensuring food security in the countryside

Jennifer S. Bowles is a PhD candidate in Anthropology, University of Michigan Since 2008, Ms. Bowles has been working on labor and agrarian rights movements in Misiones, Argentina, particularly on the politics of yerba mate production. Trained as an attorney and clinical social worker, she has advocated for low wage workers and practiced as a mental health therapist for homeless men and women recovering from addiction.

Food Sovereignty: a critical dialogue, 14 - 15 September, New Haven.