Rural worker dies after heat stroke in Jujuy

Another four workers fainted in 40°C heat while harvesting lemons the same day

A farm worker died Thursday in Jujuy after suffering heat stroke the previous day while harvesting lemons for agribusiness company Ledesma, according to reports by deputies and a rural workers union.

Julio César Centeno, 49, began his shift at 10 a.m. Around midday, he started to feel ill and fainted. The temperature at the time had risen above 40°C. His coworkers found him and tried unsuccessfully to revive him. The ambulance took an hour to arrive since the lemon plantation is a remote, jungly region near Libertador General San Martín, a town in the municipality of Ledesma.

Centeno died during the early hours of Thursday morning at a local hospital. According to Frente de Izquierda Deputy Alejandro Vilca, who has been accompanying the workers along with other left-wing deputies, four other workers also suffered a heat stroke on Wednesday but recovered. “As a result of the heatwave, many workers fainted recently, but sadly in this case it cost [Centeno] his life,” he told the Herald.

Ledesma confirmed Centeno died on Thursday after fainting at work. A company spokesperson said the cause of death was septic shock, but that Ledesma has not confirmed the underlying cause.

The agribusiness did not pause the harvest and waited to tell Centeno’s coworkers about his death until their shift had finished on Thursday afternoon, Vilca said.

The workers are day laborers and were working from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in extreme temperatures, according to Vilca. “After Centeno died, the only measure the company took was to make them start their shifts at 6 a.m.” to avoid having them work during the hottest hours, the deputy said. “They pretended nothing happened.”

A spokesperson for Ledesma said work schedules change frequently depending on field and climate conditions.

Benjamín Ramírez, head of the local branch of the Argentine Rural Workers Union (UATRE in Spanish), said people who are working in Ledesma’s field “don’t have the necessary safety conditions” to carry out their duties.

Ramírez said neither Ledesma nor its staffing firm ManpowerGroup provides water and personal safety elements, such as appropriate clothing. “Some workers say that, at times, water doesn’t reach the farm because it’s far away from the nearest town,” he said. “And they can only take a little amount of water while working several hectares.” He also pointed out that harvesting is done by climbing high ladders to reach the fruit, and that this could prove to be dangerous if done during the hottest hours of the day because of the risk of fainting if not done under safe conditions.

Ledesma denied these claims, saying “workers have water available for them,” as well as the appropriate personal safety elements.

According to Vilca, Ledesma currently has around 2,000 seasonal employees in northwest Argentina, of whom 500 are hired via third parties. Centeno was hired by ManpowerGroup to harvest lemons and oranges in Ledesma’s Paradiso field.

As an outsourced worker, Centeno got paid by piecework, meaning he only earned as much as he managed to harvest, unlike those hired directly by Ledesma. Workers harvest at least 500 kilos of fruit each day, and some even double those efforts to make ends meet, Ramírez added. Since the work is seasonal, many rely on their earnings from the four to six months the harvest lasts to survive for the rest of the year without having to migrate to find work.

“These precarious temporary jobs exploit workers,” Vilca said.

Centeno lived in Libertador General San Martín and occasionally traveled to work on farms in other provinces. His family did not want to make his case public for fear that his brother, who works for Ledesma, could lose his job. Centeno and his brother were the main earners in a large family. Fellow co-workers and the rural workers’ union made the case public.

“This could have been avoided,” Ramírez lamented.

Ledesma is owned by the Blaquier-Arrieta family, who have frequently featured on Forbes Argentina’s rich list. The company is the main sugar producer in northeast Argentina, the heart of national sugar production, and also produces paper, cider, and citrus. Its fields and factories are mainly in Jujuy.


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