` Lack of Farm Workers in Argentina Weakens Vulnerable Olive Oil Industry

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Lack of Farm Workers in Argentina Weakens Vulnerable Olive Oil Industry

Apr. 17, 2011
By Charlie Higgins

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The Argen­tine region of Cuyo, which com­prises the provinces of Men­doza, San Luis, La Rioja and San Juan, is char­ac­ter­ized by warm, dry sum­mers and mild win­ters; ideal grow­ing con­di­tions for olive trees. Cuyo could be pro­duc­ing olives on par with some of Europe’s most pro­lific agri­cul­tural regions, but cer­tain orga­ni­za­tional prob­lems, among them a recent absence of able work­ers, are hin­der­ing the region’s poten­tial.

In 2011 olive cul­ti­va­tion in Cuyo is expected to grow an aston­ish­ing 40 per­cent, but nearly half of this green gold will never make it to store shelves. There are sim­ply not enough work­ers to har­vest the olives, which must be indi­vid­u­ally hand­picked and har­vested. This scarcity of work­ers, com­pounded with the low inter­na­tional price of olive oil, is mak­ing it impos­si­ble for Argentina to com­pete with top pro­duc­ers in coun­tries like Spain and Italy, who also receive hefty gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies.

The vast major­ity of migrant farm labor­ers in the region are Boli­vians, whose long days are spent har­vest­ing grapes, tobacco, sugar, toma­toes, olives and other crops on dif­fer­ent plan­ta­tions through­out Argentina. Men­doza is home to Argentina’s sec­ond largest pop­u­la­tion of Boli­vians, most of which work in the olive and grape farms in nearby Maipu.

Indus­try lead­ers say they have never seen such a scarcity of labor in both the olive and grape sec­tors, despite a 2010 pres­i­den­tial decree pro­vid­ing migrant work­ers with uni­ver­sal child allowance and other ben­e­fits. In gen­eral Boli­vian work­ers, not native Argen­tines, are the ones who rely on these ser­vices, but rarely access them due to the enor­mous time and effort it takes to get on the social assis­tance pay­roll.

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Still many work­ers receive the gov­ern­ment hand­outs yet don’t report to work. Rodolfo Var­gas Arizu, Pres­i­dent of Mendoza’s Olive Com­mit­tee, sees this is as one of the main causes of the prob­lem. We should work together to find a cre­ative solu­tion to the prob­lem of how to reward hard work instead of sub­si­diz­ing leisure,” Arizu told Clarin news­pa­per.

Boli­vians are supe­rior work­ers, accord­ing to Arizu, who says that a typ­i­cal Boli­vian can pro­duce 14 bags of olives a day whereas the aver­age Argen­tine laborer brings in just eight. The few Argen­tine olive pick­ers in Cuyo tend to be older peo­ple who har­vest olives each year to stay active but not because they need the money. Boli­vian labor­ers, on the other hand, travel through­out the coun­try in search of work as they eek out a liv­ing on low wages. For each 44-pound bag they fill with olives they receive between $2.46 and $3.45.

Cuyo’s olive oil indus­try will con­tinue to face the worst cri­sis it has seen in thirty years, accord­ing to Arizu, until it finds a way to com­bat the labor prob­lem and turn olives into a viable export indus­try like wine.



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