CALIFORNIA

Mexican farm strike leaders to meet with growers as crops rot

Mexican farmworker leaders are to meet with growers as crops for U.S. markets rot in the fields

For the last week, striking farmworkers in Baja California have all but stopped the winter harvest, right at its peak. While crops rot, indigenous pickers are rallying on streets and plazas as police and army soldiers keep watch, putting the normally sleepy region on edge.

Negotiations between labor leaders and agribusinesses are scheduled to resume Wednesday in a meeting that could determine whether the walkout — the first in decades by Baja farmworkers — comes to an end or extends its sometimes violent run.

At stake is one of Mexico's biggest harvests — millions of tons of berries, tomatoes and cucumbers that are exported to the United States. Some shortages have been reported, and Mexican police arrested more than 200 people after protests devolved into riots, rock-throwing and vandalism last week.

Bracing for more unrest, business owners this week boarded up shops and restaurants in San Quintin and nearby towns, and more than 1,000 police and army soldiers have spread across the region 200 miles south of San Diego. Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights sent observers after protesters complained of unlawful arrests and police mistreatment.

The strike comes a month after Mexico's agricultural sector established an alliance of industry trade groups focused on improving the lives of farmworkers.

The International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry was formed after The Times published "Product of Mexico," a series documenting labor abuses at Mexican export farms.

Enrique Martinez y Martinez, Mexico's secretary of agriculture, said in February that the group would work to guarantee workers' access to decent housing and healthcare, as well as wages and benefits in compliance with federal law. But the lack of specific remedies has raised doubts among some human rights groups and labor unions.

The Agricultural Council of Baja California, which is part of the national alliance and represents the Baja growers, largely escaped media attention during the first week of negotiations. Those talks focused largely on farmworkers' bid to break away from unions that they say favored the interests of agribusinesses over laborers.

That successful effort — a rarity in Mexican farm labor annals — opened the door to Wednesday's scheduled face-to-face session.

The council's attorney, Alberto Munoz, disappointed labor leaders after he kept them waiting at several meetings and didn't have an immediate response to their demands.

"We're asking for more time to work with each agribusiness, explaining each point in the negotiations," Munoz told Mexican reporters Friday. "We want a uniform proposal so that all the agribusinesses are part of it."

Labor leaders pounced, saying that it was a stalling tactic.

"Right now [the alliance] is a public relations ploy," said Erik Nicholson, vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, whose representatives are advising labor leaders in San Quintin. "They failed the first round. We've seen or heard nothing on them calling on their peers in Baja to comply with the law."

Representatives of the alliance of growers did not return calls seeking comment. It remains unclear to what extent the alliance coordinates with its regional members.

Labor leaders say that growers haven't given raises in years, refuse to pay overtime and government-required benefits, and allow crew bosses to sexually harass female workers. They are asking agribusinesses to triple wages, now about $10 per day, and comply with all labor laws.

They also want authorities to release dozens of laborers who remain in custody after being arrested last week. Their alleged mistreatment prompted Mexico's human rights commission to open an investigation Monday.

Fermin Salazar, a representative of the farmworkers, said thousands of laborers continue protesting along the Transpeninsular Highway. They won't block the key link to export markets as they did last week, he said, but will stay out of the fields until their demands are met.

"We're on the side of the road. It's dusty and windy, but we remain because the battle continues," said Salazar, who is a spokesman for the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, which is a coalition of indigenous groups.

Some observers doubt that the council will show flexibility in negotiations.

The more than one dozen agribusinesses that are part of the council have worked collectively in the past to block labor reforms, set wage limits and deny government-required benefits through legal loopholes, said Marcos Lopez, an assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College in Maine who has conducted research in the area.

By acting together, Lopez said, the growers have succeeded in suppressing wages and blacklisting people trying to organize workers. The only reason they are negotiating now, Lopez says, is because labor leaders succeeded in attracting media attention.

"They didn't do this because they had a change of heart," Lopez said.

Among the agribusinesses operating in the region are U.S.-based companies that supply major American retail and restaurant chains. BerryMex, which grows berries shipped under the Driscoll's label, disputes the labor abuse accusations.

BerryMex said in a statement that all its workers receive Social Security benefits and are paid wages according to Mexican law. The company said it has "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse and nurtures a "culture of honesty, justice and respect" through management training.

"BerryMex has a long and consistent history of listening to worker concerns and taking measures to provide ample benefits, attractive wages and a clean, safe and productive work environment," the statement said.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

Twitter: @ricardin24

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