Produce industry officials on both sides of the border say they are launching an effort to ensure that workers at thousands of Mexican farms that export fruit and vegetables to the United States have safe and sanitary housing, decent wages and access to healthcare and day care.
The new initiative, tentatively called the International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance, was announced after a Los Angeles Times investigation this month detailed harsh treatment of laborers at mega-farms across Mexico, especially in the produce-rich coastal state of Sinaloa.
The Times' series, called "Product of Mexico," found that thousands of farmworkers lived in rat-infested labor camps, often without beds or reliable water supplies, and had their pay illegally withheld, which essentially prevented them from leaving during peak harvest periods.
The produce from these farms was sold by some of the leading grocery and restaurant chains in the U.S., including Wal-Mart, Safeway and Olive Garden.
The new initiative will take aim at some of those issues, said Mario Robles, director of the Confederation of Agribusiness Assns. in Sinaloa, a trade group that represents some of Mexico's largest exporters.
"That's part of our plan. To make sure all laws are followed. If the laws say pay every week, then that has to be. Companies that don't will have to leave the alliance," Robles said Friday, adding that such companies could lose access to Mexican government subsidies.
The alliance will also include the Fresh Produce Assn. of the Americas, an Arizona-based trade group that represents more than 100 U.S.-based distributors and marketers of Mexican produce, said Lance Jungmeyer, the association's president.
The trade groups in the two countries handle about 80% of the exports from Mexico to the U.S., Jungmeyer said. Produce exports from Mexico have tripled in the last decade, to $7.6 billion. Half of the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico.
"The organizations have signed a pledge that will relate to developing programs to highlight the kinds of social responsibility practices that I think are necessary these days," Jungmeyer said. "I think transparency … is something that the public wants."
Jungmeyer said the industry's new social responsibility initiative was part of its overall goal of improving working conditions. Talks had been going on for a year, he said, and the announcement of the plan, one day after the series' first installment was published, was not "strictly" in response to The Times' coverage, he said.
The Times' coverage has been criticized by industry groups as unbalanced for focusing only on problematic farms, but others, including some growers and union groups, have hailed it as a groundbreaking expose of long-standing problems in Mexico's agricultural export farms.
Jim Prevor, a leading produce industry analyst, said the growers and distributors would be "foolish" to ignore the coverage.
He referred to an informational graphic published with The Times' series that showed how produce moved from a Mexican farm with abusive labor practices through middlemen to leading U.S. supermarket and restaurant chains.
Prevor called the chart "a game-changer."
"It is telling retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart that you own your supply chain and you will be held responsible for all that occurs within it," Prevor wrote in his Perishable Pundit blog.
Key questions remain about the industry's move. Union and fair-trade groups say that industry-led programs to address labor issues often fall short because they don't include enforcement mechanisms. The trade groups offered few program details. Robles said more information would be disclosed when the group was formally established next year.
Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, which has been involved in improving labor conditions in Mexico, said it's too early to gauge whether the initiative is a sincere effort.
"I think it's good that there's an increased conversation about the need for social responsibility in the produce industry, yet for something to be truly impactful workers have to be included. They have to be at the table to draft what the scope is. … Otherwise, the risk is, this is just window dressing," Nicholson said.
The alliance does not include grocery chains, restaurants or other food retailers in the United States. Some of those companies told The Times they took the issues raised in the series seriously and were looking into them.
The series, parts of which were published in Sinaloa's leading newspaper, drew critical reactions from growers and top federal and state officials. They dismissed the coverage as an effort to harm the Mexican farm economy on behalf of growers in California and Florida.
But others in Mexico said they were shocked by what they read.
Mexican film director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, interviewed on a national radio show, said The Times' reporting spoke to the country's culture of impunity that allowed labor abuses to go unchecked.
"It's literally an exploitation of human beings at an inexplicable level for the 21st century, in our own country," he said.