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Hand To Mouth


new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990

Hand to mouth
Next time you bite into a Chilean apple, spare a thought
for the person who picked it. Holly Johnson and Laura Clarke
meet the farmworkers of San José de Penuelas.

Darkness envelops the village of San José de Penuelas in Chile's central fruit-growing region beneath the Cordillera. Only candlelight and the murmur of voices indicate that life exists inside the shadowy shacks. The apple-picking season ended in April but the pickers remain because they have no money to leave and there is no work anyway.

Tonight the labourers have gathered at a friend's house to discuss whether the new government will resolve their biggest problems like the lack of decent housing, running water and electricity. A union organizer has travelled from Santiago to explain how the new union, El Libertador, is co-ordinating a plan to enable seasonal workers to qualify for government-subsidized housing.

The apple pickers or temporeros desperately need the union's help. This year they earned only $3.50 a day during the harvest. And that only lasted from mid-February to late April. Some labourers had jobs for about a month beforehand when the trees were thinned and again in May when pruning started. But this was such specialized work that only a lucky few got it, and none of those were women.

After apple-picking some temporeros pack tobacco but this is small-scale work lasting just two or three weeks. As always, this winter most labourers will live a hand-to-mouth existence until the grapes are ready for thinning in late August. After that they will pick summer fruit until next winter grinds around.

Picking apples is hard work. The men climb ladders to reach the most inaccessible fruit while the women collect apples in hessian sacks which they heave down the field slung over their backs. Teams of 10 people work in rows, each under the scrutiny of a team-boss who determines the pace of picking. The days are relentlessly hot and long, and the temporeros are hungry most of the time.

They report to work at 8.30am on an empty stomach. No lunch is provided and it does not take long to eat what little they bring - a bit of salad, some bread and maybe a hard-boiled egg.

After the long day finishes, most pickers labour an extra hour to earn a rest on Saturday afternoon. Sunday is paid overtime but few can afford to take time off. Seasonal work is so uncertain that the pickers are forced to work whatever the conditions just to make a few extra pesos.

The lack of organization among temporeros is integral to the country's busy fruit production and export business. Only about 10 per cent of the Chile's estimated 400,000 temporeros belong to any kind of union. And the slick export companies and landowners are anxious to keep it that way in order to retain total flexibility in hiring, firing and setting their wage levels.

There is no legal mechanism for collective bargaining by agricultural workers. The re-emerging unions have pressed the newly inaugurated democratic government to modify its code of labour practices. But it is unlikely that collective bargaining by farmworkers will be implemented since the Government has a minority in the Senate - with nine senators bequeathed by former president Pinochet. Moreover many right-wing senators are landholders who will not be enthusiastic about altering the status quo.

Yet temporeros must organize if they are to improve their working and living conditions. And this is beginning to happen. In one area of the central fruit-growing region, north-east of Santiago, 600 seasonal workers have joined a new union set up to address the needs of the seasonal labourers and their families and to negotiate with employers.

Local and migrant labourers, supported by sociologists and the Catholic Church, run a social centre which houses 50 migrant labourers and offers communal lunches, child care for under-l0-year-olds, recreational activities, vocational training and preventative health care. They also provide temporeros with off-season work.

The project serves as a model of organization for temporeros elsewhere. And tonight, three hours south in San José de Penuelas, the seasonal labourers who are talking by candlelight around a table seem to be taking the first steps towards the same kind of self-determination.

Holly Johnson and Laura Clarke are journalists living in Santiago.

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