Baja farmworkers win raises, benefits in landmark deal
It started as a door-knocking campaign by poor indigenous villagers, then grew into a well-organized movement that mobilized thousands and brought powerful agribusinesses and the federal government to the negotiating table.
The tense farmworker strike in Baja California officially came to an end this week with a landmark agreement that, experts say, marks the most significant achievement by a farm labor movement in recent Mexican history.
Daily wages for thousands of workers will increase as much as 50%, and laborers will begin receiving government-required benefits long denied by many agribusinesses in the San Quintin valley, 200 miles south of San Diego.
“We have awakened. We’re not going to accept working for 100 pesos a day anymore. We’re not going to accept being denied our social security benefits,” labor leader Fidel Sanchez told a throng of cheering laborers who had gathered in the village of Vicente Guerrero on Thursday night to hear details of the agreement.
Although workers fell short of their goal of a 200-peso daily wage (about $13), and it remains to be seen whether the government will follow through on its pledge to enforce basic labor laws, experts said that didn’t diminish the significance of the achievement.
“This is a watershed moment,” said Sara Lara, a farm labor researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In decades of studying farm issues, Lara said she has never seen agribusinesses buckle to labor demands for increased wages.
“It’s incredible,” Lara said. “It changes the paradigm and creates a new precedent in the labor movement. “
The agreement, reached late Thursday after a six-hour negotiating session, calls for a three-tiered compensation system. Large farms will pay workers 180 pesos per day (about $11.50); medium farms, 165 pesos (roughly $10.50); small farms; 150 pesos (approximately $9.50). Since most work at large agribusinesses, the raises are about $4 per day more for many of the estimated 30,000 workers in the San Quintin region.
The deal also guarantees workers’ rights to social security benefits and overtime pay, requires the government to improve infrastructure and allows for worker oversight of farm inspections by labor officials.
The deal, experts say, resulted from a convergence of factors not seen in previous labor movements. Labor leaders in San Quintin — some of them with experience working in U.S. farm labor unions — maintained solidarity and were able to consistently mobilize large protests that drew international media coverage.
Industry and labor representatives and academic researchers also credited “Product of Mexico,” a series published by The Times in December that documented labor abuses at Mexican export farms. They said it heightened awareness of labor abuse in Mexico, which led to greater scrutiny by consumers of U.S. retailers’ supply chains.
Every large U.S. retailer, including Wal-Mart, Costco and Safeway, buys berries, tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce from Baja California. Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company and a major distributor of Baja California produce, faced boycott threats.
“I think [the series] introduced the issue of working conditions on farms in Mexico that supply the U.S. consumer on the agenda, and [the strike] was the next installment in that conversation,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers.
Farmworkers’ grievances in San Quintin festered for years. Long denied government-required benefits and salary increases, workers walked out March 17 in protests that degenerated into violent clashes with police. Laborers invaded and torched government buildings, threw rocks at police and, for several hours, blocked the main highway to export markets in California.
The strike caused losses of about $80 million, industry officials said.
After weeks of negotiations, violence flared again in early May as police fired rubber bullets at protesters, injuring dozens. Video images of injured farmworkers were broadcast across Mexico, generating sympathy for laborers.
Agribusiness remained unswayed, saying raising wages more than its 15% offer could lead to an economic collapse. The breakthrough came after the federal government on May 14 offered to subsidize a portion of the wage increase. The proposal was widely criticized in Mexico and deemed unlawful, but it bought time for federal negotiators to pressure growers to boost their offer.
Despite the landmark achievement, many laborers reacted somberly to the agreement. Weary after three months of protests, they considered the gains meager given how much they sacrificed.
“After all these days without eating, without bathing, leaving kids at home and forgoing work, and this is all we get?” said Matilde Hernandez, a 47-year-old mother of three, referring to the $4 raise. “We’re fighting for crumbs.”
Some took a pragmatic attitude, saying that over the long term things would continue to improve. “We’re advancing little by little,” said Margarita Gabriel, who said her wages would go up $3.
The situation grew tense Thursday after negotiations at a salon in a San Quintin restaurant. Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid beat a hasty retreat, fearing that news of the accord could upset laborers. He and his bodyguards pushed their way through an angry crowd shouting epithets and banging on his SUV. “Coward! Rat!” yelled the crowd.
Since The Times’ investigation, the federal government has assumed a greater role in farm labor issues. In February, Secretary of Agriculture Enrique Martinez y Martinez announced the creation of an alliance of industry groups tasked with improving the lives of more than 1 million farm laborers.
In San Quintin, a federal negotiatorsteered the parties to a compromise.
Experts said the federal government was forced to take a stronger role because it needed to protect its export economy and image as a stable country in which foreign companies could invest. The government was reeling from intense media coverage of labor abuses and the violent clashes between police and protesters.
Executives at Driscoll’s, a large buyer of Baja California fruit, said it urged Mexican officials to take charge of the negotiations after its brand was unfairly tarnished in protests and social media campaigns in the U.S.
Soren Bjorn, executive vice president of the Driscoll’s of the Americas business unit, said Friday that The Times’ series and general media coverage of the Baja strikes raised awareness among U.S. consumers, who are increasingly demanding that the goods they purchase be ethically sourced.
Generally regarded as one of the more socially responsible companies operating in Mexico, Driscoll’s has been trying to get its retail buyers to pay more so it can continue improving work conditions at the company’s supplier farms in Mexico, Bjorn said.
Consumer attitudes already were shifting, Bjorn said, but the media coverage accelerated the process and compelled the Mexican government and the industry to act, he said.
“What it did was touch a nerve that was already kind of itching, and once it did that, then all of a sudden a whole bunch of people jumped to action,” Bjorn said. “And then layer on the Baja protest and that added fuel to the fire.”
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