One month after Mexico's agricultural sector committed to improving the lives of farmworkers, the industry is facing its first major test as laborers in Baja California strike for higher wages, government benefits and the halt to alleged workplace abuses.
Agribusinesses are scheduled to begin direct negotiations Wednesday with a coalition of farmworker groups who say they will remain on strike -– the first in decades by farm laborers in Baja California -- until their demands are met.
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 already been reported and Mexican police arrested more than 200 people after protests last week devolved into riots, rock-throwing and vandalism.
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 soldiers have spread across the region 200 miles south of San Diego. Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights has sent observers after protesters complained of unlawful arrests and police mistreatment.
The association representing the growers, the Agricultural Council of Baja California, is part of a national alliance of produce industry groups formed after The Times published "Product of Mexico," a series documenting labor abuses at Mexican export farms.
The alliance, said Mexico's secretary of agriculture, Enrique Martinez y Martinez, would work to guarantee workers' access to decent housing and healthcare, as well as wages and benefits, in compliance with federal law. But the vague declarations and lack of specific remedies have raised doubts among some human rights groups and labor unions.
The council avoided media attention during the first week of negotiations, which focused on farmworkers' successful efforts to break away from unions that they say favored the interests of agribusinesses over laborers.
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 on Friday. Munoz did not return calls seeking comment.
On Friday, Munoz told Mexican reporters: "We're asking for more time to work with each agribusiness, explaining each point in the negotiations. We want a uniform proposal so that all the agribusinesses are part of it."
Labor leaders pounced, saying 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, called the International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry, did not return calls seeking comment. It remains unclear to what extent the alliance coordinates with its regional members.
Labor leaders say 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're asking agribusinesses to triple wages, currently at about $10 per day, and comply with all labor laws.
They also want authorities to releases dozens of laborers who remain in custody after being arrested last week. Their alleged mistreatment prompted Mexico's national commission of human rights to open an investigation Monday.
Some observers doubt 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 done research in the area.
By acting together, Lopez said the growers have succeeded in suppressing wages and black-listing people trying to organize workers. The only reason they're negotiating now, Lopez believes, 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 U.S. retail and restaurant chains. BerryMex, which grows berries shipped under the Driscolls labels, disputes the labor abuse accusations.
BerryMex said in a statement that all of its workers receive social security benefits and are paid wages according to Mexican law. The company in a statement 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.