Amid mounting tension, Mexico agrees to subsidize farmworkers' wages

Apparent breakthrough in Mexican farmworkers' dispute as government agrees to pay part of workers' wages

Baja California farmworker leaders and the Mexican government reached a tentative agreement Thursday that would boost wages and guarantee government-required benefits to thousands of laborers, in an apparent breakthrough aimed at ending the nearly two-month-long labor dispute.

In an unprecedented move, Mexico's federal government agreed to pay part of the workers' wages in order to meet their demands for a minimum daily wage of 200 pesos, or about $13.

"This is an agreement that will help us construct an orderly, peaceful, respectful and responsible way to provide a better quality of life for those workers who live in the valley of San Quintin," Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid said after 18 hours of tense negotiations in Ensenada.

The deal won't be formalized until a signing ceremony June 4 and some key negotiations remain, mainly to determine the industry and government's share of the wage increase. Some observers remained skeptical, noting that the language of the agreement didn't guarantee that the workers' wage demands would be met.

Even so, farmworker leaders struck a positive note as they were greeted by thousands of cheering laborers upon their return from Ensenada to San Quintin on Thursday morning.

The announcement came after weeks of stalled talks and increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police.

In a key concession, the government agreed to ensure that every laborer in the region 200 miles south of San Diego would have access to social security benefits, which provide pensions and healthcare. Some of the region's largest agribusinesses for years have been denying the benefits, which are required by law.

A summary of the 13-point agreement distributed by the Baja California governor's office says that government and industry representatives will try to reach consensus on a minimum daily wage that comes "as close as possible" to workers' demands.

Negotiations between the government and industry representatives were continuing Thursday. "To our knowledge, all parties involved have not come to a mutual resolution," said Alfredo Arvizu, a spokesman for BerryMex, a major grower for Driscoll's, the world's largest berry distributor.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers, which has sent representatives to Mexico to monitor the discussions, said he is unaware of the Mexican government ever agreeing to subsidize farmworker wages. "They have not achieved the 200-peso goal yet," Nicholson said.

The labor standoff, which began in mid-March with laborers blocking the region's main highway to export markets, had been growing increasingly tense in recent weeks. Dozens of protesters were injured Saturday by police firing rubber bullets in clashes that were broadcast across the country.

Baja state officials accused protesters of starting the riot by setting fires and throwing rocks at police, but many observers believe the widely circulated images of injured farmworkers, several of whom were hospitalized, helped turn public opinion against the government.

"I don't think the government wants to give the impression that it's a repressive force," said farmworker leader Justino Herrera of the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, a coalition of indigenous groups.

"All of Mexico is behind us, supporting our movement," Herrera said.

Threats of an international boycott of produce from the San Quintin Valley also may have been a factor forcing the government's hand. The strike crippled exports for a time and caused losses estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.

Driscoll's, a California company that distributes berries to major retailers across the U.S., had been targeted with boycott threats for partnering with farms accused of shortchanging worker benefits and having onerous work quotas.

The company, which has cultivated a labor-friendly image, has denied that its suppliers mistreat workers. A spokesman said the company could not comment while negotiations are ongoing.

The federal government has taken an increasingly active role in addressing working conditions at Mexico's export farms. After The Times' published a four-part series, "Product of Mexico," documenting widespread labor abuses, Mexican federal officials and industry groups formed a social responsibility alliance and pledged to improve the lives of more than 1 million farmworkers.

The coastal valley of San Quintin is one of Mexico's leading agricultural export regions, sending millions of tons of strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables to the U.S. every year.

Owners of the region's largest agribusinesses are politically powerful, with some having held high posts in the Baja California state government. They have been negotiating through their trade group, the Agricultural Council of Baja California.

A spokesman for the organization was not available for comment.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

Twitter: @ricardin24

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