U.S. firms, consumers can't ignore abuses against Mexican farmworkers

It will be harder to curb farm-work abuses in Mexico than it has been to reform Bangladesh factory conditions

This week, an investigative series in The Times is describing the shocking conditions under which many seasonal farmworkers in Mexico live and work — barracked in squalid shacks far from their homes, underfed, trapped by debt or even held captive by their employers. The details of the lives of these desperately poor people working under difficult and sometimes illegal conditions read like a retelling of the scandals involving Bangladeshi garment workers.

It's taken years, but progress is finally being made on the garment workers front. Now it's time to do the same for contract farmworkers in Mexico, who also toil to make products for U.S. consumption.

As The Times has reported, migrant agricultural workers are recruited from indigenous parts of Mexico to work at large agricultural operations hundreds of miles away, promised that during their 90-day contracts they will be given room, and in some cases board, as well as a weekly salary. In fact, the housing at these Mexican farms is often filthy, rat-infested and lacking even a mattress. The workers' wages are in many cases withheld — illegally under Mexican law — to trap workers into staying the full three months. In some cases, they are literally held behind barbed wire. They frequently are in debt to their recruiters, who charge them a fee to be hired before they even start work. Because of that and the expensive company stores at the farm camps where they must buy such basics as food and soap, it's common for them to leave at the end of their contracts with no money earned.

It might be possible to write this off as another sad story about a foreign people in a foreign country except that much of the food these contract workers pick is ultimately imported into the United States, where it is sold to American consumers by retailers as disparate as discounter Wal-Mart and pricey health-food chain Whole Foods. It is even served up in lunches at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Here's the daunting news: It will be harder to cut back on farm-work abuses in Mexico than it has been to reform factory conditions in Bangladesh, where factory fires and a building collapse have killed well over 1,000 clothing industry employees in recent years. Independent inspections of urban factories are relatively cheap and easy. Is the equipment safe, the building solid and are the doors kept unlocked in case of fire? The employees are all there in the factory when inspectors come in and are easily approached for questions about whether they are paid as promised. It's relatively easy to spot child laborers. The factories are close together, sometimes sharing a building, allowing the assessment of more than one in a day. The Mexican farms, in contrast, are in remote areas and distant from one another. And they are so sprawling that inspectors seldom have time to examine them thoroughly.

Only a few U.S. stores and restaurant chains bother hiring independent inspectors to examine the farms from which they buy their produce. And even when they do, big farms take advantage of the logistical problems these monitors face, said Quinn Kepes, program director with Verite, a nonprofit organization that has helped U.S. and European corporations improve working conditions among their foreign contractors. The farms build decent housing with playgrounds for children and other amenities close to the farm offices, giving a false impression of how most of the laborers live, and they assign the best-treated workers to be in the area and coach them on what to say to the inspector. It would take at least a day for the inspectors to foray to distant fields at the same farm and find fieldworkers to interview.

As a result, frequent inspection would be extremely expensive, Kepes said. But U.S. stores and other food buyers cannot rely on the Mexican government, with its lax laws and indifferent attitude about enforcement.

A more effective method, according to Verite, would be for U.S. corporations buying agricultural produce in Mexico to become more familiar with their suppliers and to look for certain warning signs that are closely associated with farmworker abuse — and then to refuse to buy from those farms that appear to be bad actors. Many of these red flags involve the recruiters who travel to impoverished towns and lure people into three-month contracts with extravagant promises. It's particularly problematic, according to Verite, when the recruiters are allowed to extract a fee from the people they hire, which places the workers in immediate debt. Farms should pay the recruiters themselves and pay each worker directly rather than through the recruiter.

At many farms, contract recruiters run the camps for the employees they've hired, another red flag, according to Verite, because recruiters are constantly looking for ways to increase their own profits — often by providing abominable living conditions, meager food and ruinously expensive camp stores. U.S. buyers should make it clear that they intend to buy from farms that provide housing for their employees and supervise them directly. U.S. companies should avoid farms where employees are under 90-day contracts; even though Mexico requires that workers be paid weekly, the long-term contracts give employers and recruiters an incentive to withhold pay so that the laborers stay on no matter how bad conditions are.

Inspections would still be needed. But rather than inspecting frequently, Kepes said, U.S. food purchasers should invest their money in less-frequent but more thorough examinations during which the monitor examines several worker camps and enters remote fields to speak with workers, unaccompanied by any farm personnel.

For their part, consumers can look for the "Fair Trade" label on foods, which at least ensures that the farm is regularly audited and meets certain requirements for treatment of workers.

L.A. Unified and other government agencies can play a leading role in reform, using their purchasing power to pressure Mexican farms into improving the working and living conditions of employees. There is a terrible irony at hand when some of the poorest people in Mexico are starving in order to feed us.

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