Harvesting solutions: How to address the plight of farmworkers in Mexico

Nine responses to abusive farm practices in Mexico

Last month, the Los Angeles Times published "Product of Mexico," a four-part series on the abuse of workers on Mexican megafarms that export fruits and vegetables to the United States. The articles and photographs documented dangerous and squalid housing, children as young as 6 working in the fields and laborers denied wages and trapped in debt peonage at company-owned stores.

Since the articles ran, two trade groups — the Confederation of Agribusiness Assns. in the state of Sinaloa and the Fresh Produce Assn. of the Americas in Arizona — have launched a joint social-responsiblity initiative. The Opinion page solicited additional ideas on what needs to be done, and by whom, to remedy the harsh conditions.

Industry problem crosses borders

By Cynthia L. Rice

"I need to pay more attention and stop buying those tomatoes from Mexico." That's what I first thought when I read "Product of Mexico."

As an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, however, I know such illegal practices occur in California. Without aggressive litigation, they would be just as pervasive here as in Mexico.

At one Stockton asparagus farm, workers from Mexico were housed in horrific conditions and charged $1,500 to pay for the privilege of working for less than minimum wage. Store shelves are filled with romaine lettuce and tomatoes from Salinas and San Diego County companies that violate heat-stress or field-sanitation standards, or wrongly classify packers to avoid paying daily overtime. Our local milk is often the product of "salaried" milkers who work 12 straight 14-hour days with no overtime. Herbs, baby carrots and specialty vegetables come from Imperial Valley farms where workers spend eight hours bent and stooped, hand-weeding or using the short-handled hoe outlawed decades ago.

Every day new cases come into our offices — and as agriculture "modernizes," labor abuses evolve as well. Pesticide exposure is a daily risk. The incidence of sexual abuse in the fields is higher than ever reported.

CRLA's work over the last 49 years has helped keep farmworker exploitation in check here. We have recovered tens of millions of dollars in wages and damages, obtained injunctions against growers and labor contractors, and had OSHA citations issued based on our field observations.

The continuing need for such litigation in the U.S., however, raises the question: Is it the country, or is it the industry?

Cynthia L. Rice is a director of litigation, advocacy and training at California Rural Legal Assistance.

Train farmworkers to certify conditions

By Peter O'Driscoll

Even with commitment and investment from the companies that purchase produce, improving conditions for international farmworkers is no small challenge. The companies' supply chains are sprawling, and any measures they adopt will have to accommodate regulations, economic conditions and cultural expectations that vary by country.

But the industry has taken on challenges before. After all, in the wake of massive food recalls of tainted produce, the food industry was able to invest significantly in raising and enforcing food safety standards. So as the public demands answers now about abusive working conditions, grocers and growers alike should support certification programs that combine food safety and labor standards.

With training, farmworkers can identify common threats to food safety — animal waste, pest contamination, unsanitary conditions — and work with management on mitigation. They also can report issues with working conditions and share suggestions to improve production. This continuous worker monitoring adds value for growers by reducing the risk of outbreaks or recalls. Workers share in the benefit through wage incentives and improved conditions on farms.

Linking labor and food safety standards must be part of the response to "Product of Mexico." Once ongoing worker verification becomes central to certification and compliance, consumers can be confident that their produce is responsibly grown as assured by farmworkers.

Peter O'Driscoll is the executive director of the Equitable Food Initiative, which provides training and sets standards for certifying improved working conditions, pesticide management and food safety.

Mexican farmers need to speak up

By Eduardo Leyson Castro

Social responsibility is a process of continuous improvement. Produce growers in Mexico like myself have an opportunity — indeed, a responsibility — to work together to ensure all of our workers are treated with the respect they deserve. Through our trade associations, we can create informational resources and educational programs, and deliver industry guidance.

It's time for our industry to embrace opportunities to change. The challenges facing the farms covered in the "Product of Mexico" series are clear and, fortunately, very solvable. The fact is that the majority of Mexico's fresh produce growers hold the most stringent social responsibility certifications in the world. We can bring our peers forward.

Although many of Mexico's farms are large and technologically advanced, most are still family owned and operated. And our families' legacies are defined by a respect for the people who help us grow. Yet few Mexican growers share stories about their multi-generational family farms or their personal commitment to their workers' health and safety. It's time to tell our stories to one another — and to the consumers who also care about our workers' health and safety.

Eduardo Leyson Castro is the owner of Agrícola San Isidro de Culiacan, a vegetable grower in Culiacan, Mexico.

Consumers can change the industry

By Greg Asbed

U.S. demand built the Mexican produce export industry; U.S. demand can rebuild it, too, if the buyers are willing. It's that simple.

That's not to say it will be easy.

Mexico is a mess. Unconscionable exploitation in the produce industry is just the immediate problem. Unchecked political corruption and hyper drug violence — the twin pillars of what Mexican social critics call the country's "culture of impunity" — form the backdrop against which everything else takes place in Mexico today.

Given those challenges — indeed, precisely because of them — American food corporations may be the only force politically independent and economically powerful enough to effect change. Those companies must, without delay, condition their purchases on the demonstrable respect for human rights, because creating immediate market consequences for human rights violations is the only real hope for eliminating and preventing those violations in the future. Only then can workers play a meaningful role in protecting their own rights in Mexico's fields, the real key to establishing ethical labor standards.

This is not just wishful thinking. It is informed by the transformation of Florida's tomato industry through the Fair Food Program — a worker-driven social responsibility program in which binding contracts with retail food corporations establish the market consequences for labor violations. It worked where nothing else had.

But if the Los Angeles Times' "Product of Mexico" series comes and goes without spurring changes in the way U.S. corporations buy Mexican produce, then the market is incapable of healing itself. That's how it was here for generations despite the steady drumbeat of media attention exposing Florida's "Harvest of Shame." In that case, consumers are the last line of defense. And when consumers speak with a clear, powerful voice, the entire market, from buyers on down, has no choice but to listen.

Greg Asbed is a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which established the Fair Food Program in Florida's tomato industry in 2010.

Helping to reduce child labor on farms

By Zama Coursen-Neff

More children work in agriculture than in any other industry in the world. But the scale and complexity of the problem is no excuse for tolerating a practice that traps children in multi-generational cycles of poverty, or, worse, leaves them injured, maimed, or dead.

It's critically important for Mexico, which recently raised its minimum working age, to better enforce its laws and apply substantial penalties to growers who violate it.

Simply firing children causes substantial harm to families who can least bear the cost. To minimize this, there should be government assistance available to these families, and growers who illegally employ children should be forced to contribute to these payments.

Government programs such as cash transfers, in which poor families receive small payments conditional on school attendance, also have a proven track record of decreasing child labor and increasing school enrollment. Improving access to education is critical: In the state of Guerrero's Mixteco areas, for example, some communities have no schools at all, and in others, schools stop short of a full primary education. Education programs for migrant children are similarly limited.

Addressing other factors that push children to work, including low wages for parents and insufficient child care, also can significantly reduce child labor.

Unfortunately, one place Mexico can't look for examples is the U.S., which excludes child farmworkers from most child labor protections. Given both governments' poor track records, retailers and other major buyers of agricultural products must conduct their own monitoring and training throughout their supply chain to ensure that their vegetables aren't harvested by endangered and exploited children.

Zama Coursen-Neff is the children's rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Pressure retailers and fast-food chains

By Don Villarejo

Can the American consumer do anything about the systematic exploitation of low-paid farm laborers in Mexico that subsidizes our low food prices?

Pressure on American food companies, such as Safeway, Subway and Walmart, can work. In fact, 11 multibillion-dollar food buyers so far have agreed to pay an additional 1 cent per pound for all tomatoes from Florida under an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group of Florida farm laborers and community supporters. A penny per pound may not sound like much — U.S. average tomato prices were $0.91 to $2.42 per pound last month — but the increase in worker earnings can be 15% or more.

Even with consumer support, progress can be slow. I remember encountering a small group picketing a Taco Bell in Tucson 12 years ago. I stopped to ask about their concerns and learned they were demanding the company pay an extra cent per pound to tomato pickers — in Florida! This group, all volunteers, had been picketing once a week for months because they felt that fairness in the nation's food system was important. Ultimately they prevailed.

Each of us can protest in our own way to improve the lives of the workers whose stories we read in "Product of Mexico." We can communicate our outrage directly to these companies, or through social media, and urge our friends and family members to do likewise.

Don Villarejo is founder and director emeritus of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a nonprofit research and education organization.

Economic options for seasonal workers

By Philip Martin

Seasonal farmworkers are near the bottom of the job ladder everywhere, earning below-average wages for less than full year work. As far back as 1950, a presidential commission concluded the U.S. demand for seasonal farmworkers would result in "poverty at home and misery abroad."

The "Product of Mexico" series focused on the seasonal workers on Mexican farms that export produce to the U.S. The farm value

of U.S.-grown fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. is

$20 billion a year and, with an additional $12 billion of imports, the total farm value is $32 billion. That becomes $125 billion for consumers, reflecting the fact that farmers typically receive a fourth of the average retail price.

Improving conditions for the workers who harvest these crops requires top-down pressure from the produce buyers, who already expect growers to pay for third-party food-safety audits. Could such audits be expanded to include adherence to labor laws? Should growers be jointly liable with contractors who provide the laborers for violations?

The best way to empower seasonal farmworkers is to ensure that they have other options. The power to say no to low wages and exploitative conditions can do more to improve lives than more labor laws. Until then, buyer responsibility can help.

Philip Martin is a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

World Bank, don't fund abusive farms

By Dan Imhoff

The labor abuses at the Bioparques 4 megafarm, documented in "Product of Mexico," highlight how badly development banks need to rethink agriculture projects. As it often does, the International Finance Corp. — a private sector lending arm of the World Bank — bought into the strategy that backing agribusiness is the best way to create jobs and improve livelihoods.

The World Bank has a unique mission to reduce poverty through loans and investments. IFC's $17.5-million loan to Bioparques was used to develop greenhouses, irrigation systems and other infrastructure. But to what end? Certainly not to alleviate the poverty of farmworkers. Instead, such projects just satiate American supermarkets' appetite for cheap produce. And at a steep social cost: dismal wages and slave-like living conditions for workers.

Every IFC loan is supposedly conditioned upon a set of social performance standards. Without adequate oversight, however, standards are meaningless. Nearly every worker protection was violated in this case, including forced labor, to lack of a grievance procedure, inadequate housing and payment systems, and even child labor. Still, the IFC determined that working with Bioparques to improve its policies is the most prudent course of action.

The World Bank and its affiliates must stop being fooled by the economic promises of giant industrial farms. Studies such as the 2009 United Nations Environment Program report "Towards a Green Economy" call for smaller grants to more efficient agro-ecological operations in order to provide better quality jobs with enhanced social and environmental outcomes.

The testimonies of hungry workers trying to escape the squalor of Bioparques simply to return home raises the central question: Which is the better way to support development in Mexico — with megafarm tomatoes for export or locally grown food for the people who live there?

Dan Imhoff has written numerous books on food, farming and public policy, including "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill" and "Farming with the Wild."

Grower groups give power to small farms

By Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin

The inability of Mexico's rural poor to feed their families forces them to leave their homes to work at large corporate farms, join the legions of factory workers living in urban slums or risk crossing illegally into the United States.

Associations of small-scale growers, however, make it possible for subsistence farmers to earn a good living.

Our company, Jacobs Farm / Del Cabo, founded its first growers' association in 1985 at the tip of the Baja peninsula. We taught sound organic farming practices, provided capital and logistics, and connected products to markets. Today, Del Cabo works in four Mexican states with more than 1,000 families.

By aggregating hundreds of small-scale farms to compete in today's global market, grower associations create economic opportunities in rural communities and significantly increase family incomes. We've seen this lead to better housing, medical care and nutrition. Parents can afford higher education for their children, some of whom have become doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Providing the business structure for families to earn a living makes other good things possible as well: healthcare, decent living conditions, and the personal satisfaction of participating in a sustainable food system.

The entire food chain loses when profits are put before people.

Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin are the founders of Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo.

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