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Inquiry: slavery and child exploitation on poultry farms

 Hecho en Buenos Aires (Argentina) 15 November 2019

Charges of people trafficking and child labour have been levelled at Argentinian company Nuestra Huella S.A, who own more than seventy poultry farms in the country. The company is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that even their extensive wealth hasn’t been able to prevent. (2034 Words) - By Rolando Aparicio Velasco

Hechoenbsas_Nuestra Huella FINAL ENGLISH

A chicken is silhouetted at an [egg] farm. Photo: REUTERS/ STR New

To reach La Escondida farm, one of Nuestra Huella S.A's properties, you have to go to the end of 13th Street and follow a dirt track for a further 500 metres. It's in Pilar. That's where Agustín and Marisol live, with their three children and four other families of exploited workers. They live in a room built at the side of the shed. Children's voices can be heard over the incessant crowing and mud is everywhere, while grass is scarce. The trees have been cut down.

Marisol is waiting by the door. She smiles and waves her hands around and tries to be polite, while confessing that having people to visit them isn't something that usually happens.

This Paraguayan couple are standing firm in their claims against the company. Agustín  is angry when he speaks: "I'm fighting for my daughter, on account of the fact that they made my pregnant wife work with toxic chemicals without protection. My daughter was born with a cyst in her kidney and needs a transplant. They're never going to pay me for this, but I want this abuse to stop."

Charges were originally filed in January 2008 when Bolivian workers Oscar Taboada and Elsa Solís managed to escape and asked two lawyers for help. Along with their six children, they had been the victims of exploitative working practices in a poultry farm. They handled chemicals without adequate protection and talked of families living in fly-infested apartments and of being forcibly given drugs any time they fell ill.

Don't count on justice before it's hatched

Pablo Sernani and Rodolfo Garcia are the lawyers who supported the Taboadas and took on their case, as well as that of Marisol and Augustin. Sernani says: "We have sad examples of how serious this matter is. The first legal action to be taken against Nuestra Huella S.A. was by three families who, shortly after complaints were lodged, were put into a lorry, taken away and never seen again. They didn't speak Spanish and had no idea where they were. That's now a case being heard by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights."

The cases are centered on two criminal proceedings brought before Judge Graciela Sione. One, for subjection to servitude and exploitation of minors, has been brought before the office of Dr Juan J Maraggi, Pilar's public prosecutor.

"The investigation has made a great deal of progress. We carried out raids and I personally have witnessed people in a state of slavery at this particular farm. What has delayed bringing this to justice is the lack of coordination between the courts and the fact that some have had to postpone hearings". Bureaucracy takes its toll.

The second case is for people trafficking, a federal crime, that is being heard by the federal judiciary in Campana, under Prosecutor Boscal. A judicial source tried to pass the buck: "It's us who have the lesser crime of trafficking; in this case, it's Maraggi who is dealing with the real criminal behaviour". This case has been delayed because the Federal Police's trafficking unit, in charge of the investigation, was accused of involvement in a prostitution ring in Mar de Plata, with the result that they were taken off the case and it was re-allocated to the Gendarmeria, Argentina's military police force.

"It's not long until this is brought to justice", Sernani declares optimistically, "and when the time comes and they're found guilty, it'll be a historic moment. They're going to be sentenced for having kept workers in a state of slavery, committing severe human rights abuses in the process, some 197 years after the abolition of slavery".

Agustín and Taboada and all the rest who brought charges against the company were fired.

The majority of them subsequently dropped their cases. However, at the end of August an employment tribunal found against the company's appeal and upheld Agustín Navarro's reinstatement. Taboada is also hoping to get his job back. "Now, I have to go back and I'm dying to get back to working with my colleagues so that they see that when you fight for something just, you always win", says Augustin. "I'm going to make my way around all the farms and see how people are working. There are farms that are set 20km from the road, and they're never inspected. I need to get myself there and help those colleagues too", he adds.

Following greater public awareness and the progress of judicial proceedings, conditions on the farms improved slightly. But only slightly: children were no longer seen working, but there were still visibly exhausted men with few tools. "The day of the raid," recounts Maraggi, "I saw one of the company's vans going in with tools and furniture for the houses. It was obvious that they were trying to hide the reality of the situation". "We're alright now," comments Marisol. "We have light, furniture and we're not shut up. You hardly ever see children working any more and they keep to an 8 hour working day, although we still don't get days off. The situation has improved, but it's still a really degrading job," he judges.

Are you coming out to play?

Leticia, 7, Oscar, 4, and Claudia, 2, are Marisol's children. Almost straight away, they're clamoring to go to the park. Oscar is brimming with energy. As he's running about playing with his sword, he tells me how he once came across a rattlesnake, and that the police once stopped by to speak to his mum. He also explains how you put on fly repellent. Meanwhile, Leticia is a girl with a piercing gaze. Their 'park' is at the bottom of the grounds, where there's a 10 meter gap between two sheds. The trees have all been cut down, with the dry branches stacked up beside each stump and there's nothing but rubbish where grass should be. The squawking hens are a constant racket in the background. Jerry cans half-filled with murky liquid are littered about: this is the fly poison that Oscar was talking about. There are two swings which they both have a shot on, Leticia climbing up nimbly but they're still really high for Oscar.

On our way back to the house, we come across several people who all avoid eye-contact: nobody wants to speak to us. Leticia points out a girl's top hanging on a washing-line and said that it used to be hers but she gave it to the girl who lives there. "She used to be my friend, we always used to go out and play but now they won't let her", she says.

A taste of the countryside

The cleaning is done at 8am every day. The walkways are 100 meters long and are coated in a 45cm thick layer of chicken debris. Employees wear yellow rubber boots and get started doing what they can with a broom, clearing a path through it which they'll use later to collect eggs from. The debris on the floor isn't just droppings: there are dead hens, eggs, feathers and blood. Even from afar, the smell is intolerable. Only as a recent move in light of the court case has the company provided them with boots.

Then comes the egg gathering: each maple, or egg box, takes 30 eggs, and a box contains 12 maples. The workers have to take 7 or 8 boxes at a time on a trolley and take them to the transporters at the edge of the grounds. This entails up to 10 journeys a day, covering 200 meters at a time with a teetering column of more than 2500 eggs.

While one worker makes the trip to the transporter, a dog gets in through a gap in the wire netting and comes out with a hen in its jaws. Marisol doesn't bat an eyelid even though the demolished remains of the chicken will be swarming with flies in no time.

Once the cleaning and egg collecting is done, it's time for fumigating the shed. The mixture is prepared and sprayed on the droppings and around the shed.

Finally they check on various things: food, dying chickens and the water and temperature levels. The crowing is relentless.

Child's play

Marisol talks openly about how children are put to work. "Each shed has 15, 000 chickens that are laying eggs all day every day and they only contract one employee per shed and on top of that, only pay if production quotas are met. Lots of families come. And if they don't all work, they don't supply enough eggs and they're thrown out. With that amount of pressure, they end up making their children work", she says. "All these families are good people, workers who arrived here with just a suitcase. They all used to be my friends and we used to help each other out a lot. But since our case was filed, the company has pressurised them and told them not to speak to us. I don't blame them; they're just trying to keep their jobs."

Nuestra Huella S.A has been operating as a company since the 1970s and these days it's responsible for 70% of Argentina's total export market of eggs and their by-products. Although China is its principal customer, at a local level it produces eggs on an industrial scale for Walmart, Coto and Carrefour. The company was founded by Carlos Luaces, a veteran who died in 2009, to allow him to financially sustain his life's passion- the Turismo Carretera, the famous Argentinian stock car racing series. He was never a brilliant competitor, but according to popular account among farm workers, he was an expert at making money, squeezing the last pennies out of every pound. "All the workers had to eat the chickens that had died," one of them recalls.

Lawyer Sernani sheds some light on the company's situation: "Generally, when irregularities are unearthed at a company, they try and improve the situation a bit and throw some cash around, but Nuestra Huella went around terrorising its workforce. They laughed in our face when we threatened to take them to the Ministries of Labour or Justice. They didn't bargain on the effect that the cases would have."

Silence isn't golden

Evening falls, and the workers leave the sheds, some with cloths tied around their faces like masks, maybe for the smell, or maybe because they want to avoid having their pictures taken. The employees group together and look over at the house where the family that's upholding their case against the company lives, and they see me. At the slightest attempt to approach them, they disappear into their houses, clearly not wanting to talk. The Navarro family have gathered in their kitchen-living room to watch a film. The hens have gone to sleep and silence reigns anew. The sun has disappeared from sight. All the households have switched their lights off, and it's difficult to see where you're going on this moonless night.

While I'm writing these words, while you're reading it, all of Argentina is buying and eating eggs that are hatched in an environment that's the harsh daily reality of these workers.


Trampling on eggshells

In 2008, the cases of exploitation and slavery reached Fundación La Alameda, an Argentinian human rights charity who campaign against slave labour and people trafficking. They went immediately to the farms, disguised as Scouts, and filmed the situation. Charges were consequently pressed and the campaign hasn't stopped since with demonstrations at the farms and at the company's headquarters. Protestors took over the silos where the chicken feed is stored and 9 hours later Marcelo Marino from Pilar's Ministry of Labour put in an appearance and made a written legal statement to the effect that a case would be brought against Nuestra Huella S.A.


Originally published by Hecho en Buenos Aires, Argentina. ©

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