Product of Mexico: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables

Richard Marosi and Don Bartletti (Photography and Video), Product of Mexico. Los Angeles Times, 7-14 December 2014. Four-part series: “Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photojournalist Don Bartletti traveled across nine Mexican states, observing conditions and interviewing workers at some of the mega-farms that have powered the country’s agricultural export boom.” Part 1, Harsh Harvest: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables.A Times reporter and photographer find that thousands of laborers at Mexico’s mega-farms endure harsh conditions and exploitation while supplying produce for American consumers…. Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers. But for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.” Part 2, No Way Out: Desperate workers on a Mexican mega-farm: ‘They treated us like slaves.’  “Scorpions and bedbugs. Constant hunger. No pay for months. Finally, a bold escape leads to a government raid, exposing deplorable conditions. But justice proves elusive…. A raid exposes brutal conditions at Bioparques, one of Mexico’s biggest tomato exporters, which was a Wal-Mart supplier. But the effort to hold the grower accountable is looking more like a tale of impunity.” Part 3, Company Stores: Company stores trap Mexican farmworkers in a cycle of debt. “The mom-and-pop monopolies sell to a captive clientele, post no prices and track purchases in dog-eared ledgers. At the end of the harvest, many workers head home owing money…. The company store is supposed to be a lifeline for migrant farm laborers. But inflated prices drive people deep into debt. Many go home penniless, obliged to work off their debts at the next harvest.” Part 4, Child Labor: Children harvest crops and sacrifice dreams in Mexico’s fields. “An estimated 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay. Alejandrina, 12, wanted to be a teacher. Instead, she became a nomadic laborer, following the pepper harvest from farm to farm…. [These] 100,000 children under 14 pick crops for pay at small- and mid-size farms across Mexico, where child labor is illegal. Some of the produce they harvest reaches American consumers, helping to power an export boom.”

Part 1, Harsh Harvest: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables.

The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming “Product of Mexico.”… The [Los Angeles] Times found:

Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.

Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.

Laborers often go deep into debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.

Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.

Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

The farm laborers are mostly indigenous people from Mexico’s poorest regions. Bused hundreds of miles to vast agricultural complexes, they work six days a week for the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day.

The squalid camps where they live, sometimes sleeping on scraps of cardboard on concrete floors, are operated by the same agribusinesses that employ advanced growing techniques and sanitary measures in their fields and greenhouses.

The contrast between the treatment of produce and of people is stark….

“They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don’t take care of us,” said Japolina Jaimez, a field hand at Rene Produce, a grower of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. “Look at how we live.”

He pointed to co-workers and their children, bathing in an irrigation canal because the camp’s showers had no water that day….

During The Times’ 18-month investigation, a reporter and a photographer traveled across nine Mexican states, observing conditions at farm labor camps and interviewing hundreds of workers.

At half the 30 camps they visited, laborers were in effect prevented from leaving because their wages were being withheld or they owed money to the company store, or both….

“The real truth is that we’re work animals for the fields.” Pasqual Garcia, farmworker….

Half the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico, mostly from the area around Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. Many farms use growing techniques from Europe. Walls of tomato vines grow 10 feet tall and are picked by laborers on stilts….

Strict U.S. laws govern the safety and cleanliness of imported fruits and vegetables. To meet those standards, retailers and distributors send inspectors to Mexico to examine fields, greenhouses and packing plants.

The companies say they are also committed to workers’ well-being and cite their ethical sourcing guidelines. Retailers increasingly promote the idea that the food they sell not only is tasty and healthful but was produced without exploiting workers.

But at many big corporations, enforcement of those standards is weak to nonexistent, and often relies on Mexican growers to monitor themselves, The Times found.

In some low-wage countries, U.S. retailers rely on independent auditors to verify that suppliers in apparel, footwear and other industries comply with social responsibility guidelines.

For the most part, that has not happened with Mexican farm labor. American companies have not made oversight a priority because they haven’t been pressured to do so. There is little public awareness of harsh conditions at labor camps. Many farms are in areas torn by drug violence, which has discouraged media coverage and visits by human rights groups and academic researchers….

Withholding workers’ pay is illegal even if they agree to it, according to Mexico’s federal labor law, a senior federal labor official and two labor lawyers….

At Agricola El Porvenir, also near Culiacan, workers were required to disinfect their hands before picking cucumbers. Yet they were given just two pieces of toilet paper to use at the outhouses.

At Campo San Jose, where many of them lived, workers said rats and feral cats had the run of the cramped living quarters and feasted on their leftovers….

Part 2, No Way Out: Desperate workers on a Mexican mega-farm: ‘They treated us like slaves.’

At the labor camp for Bioparques de Occidente, they and other farmworkers slept sprawled head to toe on concrete floors. Their rooms crawled with scorpions and bedbugs. Meals were skimpy, hunger a constant. Camp bosses kept people in line with threats and, when that failed, with their fists….

When the mistreatment of workers at the camp was finally exposed, Mexican authorities made arrests, imposed fines and promised to make an example of the company. A year and a half later, however, the case of Bioparques speaks more to the impunity of Mexican agribusiness than to accountability….

Bioparques 4 was out of sight, a treeless expanse of dirt and rock at the end of a long dirt road. In the cluster of brick buildings, people slept on floor mats in 12-by-12-foot rooms. Two families often occupied the same room.

Mothers fashioned cribs from netting to protect their babies from scorpions. They hung plastic tarps as partitions. Fights flared over the use of the one propane stove per room.

The camp had no playground or school for the dozens of children. Some followed their parents to work. Bernabe Pascuala’s 13-year-old daughter insisted on it. “She wanted to come with us because there was no school,” he said.

This account of conditions in the camp is based on interviews with 13 laborers who lived there that spring. The Times interviewed some in their home villages in Huasteca and others by phone. The paper also spoke to Mexican labor inspectors and Bioparques employees and visited the camp….

On June 10, 2013, three people managed to escape. They hitchhiked 100 miles to Guadalajara, where they notified authorities. The next day, dozens of state and federal officials arrived at Bioparques….

Two hundred seventy-five people had been trapped in the camp, including two dozen malnourished children.

At least one man had been tied to a tree and beaten by camp bosses, said Juan Ramirez Arrona, a director general of the state of Jalisco’s Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare.

“They were totally captive, prisoners,” Ramirez said in an interview….

The Jalisco attorney general’s office arrested five people and charged them with human trafficking. Two were employees of Bioparques. The other three worked for Placido Garcia, the labor contractor who managed the camp. Garcia is being sought by authorities in connection with the raid.

State and federal labor officials ordered Bioparques to pay about $700,000 in penalties for violating health and labor laws.

More was at stake than fines and the fate of the individual defendants. Convictions for human trafficking would damage Bioparques’ reputation and could imperil its ties to U.S. companies. Wal-Mart could face questions about its partnerships with Mexican exporters. The retail giant said it monitored labor conditions at its suppliers rigorously.

Jalisco’s secretary of labor, Eduardo Almaguer Ramirez, said he wanted to turn his state into a national model of employer accountability and humane treatment of farm laborers.

This was provocative talk, and rare for Mexico. The country’s big export farms have generated thousands of jobs. Their owners are wealthy and politically influential. Government officials have been loath to subject their operations to close scrutiny.

The case has stalled in Mexico’s opaque judicial system….

Part 3, Company Stores: Company stores trap Mexican farmworkers in a cycle of debt.

Company stores, called tiendas de raya, are a stubborn vestige of an oppressive past. During the early 20th century hacienda era, they kept peasants buried in debt, fueling resentment that helped spark the Mexican Revolution.

The country’s export farms have modernized rapidly in recent years to meet U.S. food safety standards and satisfy Americans’ appetite for fresh fruit and vegetables year-round.

But the company stores operate as they have for generations: as mom-and-pop monopolies that sell to a captive clientele, post no prices and track purchases in dog-eared ledgers.

The tiendas play a key role in a farm labor system that holds workers in a kind of indentured servitude. The combination of low pay and high prices drives many deep in debt to the stores. They spend the picking season trying to catch up. Guards and barbed-wire fences deter workers from fleeing the camps and their unpaid bills.

At the end of the harvest, many head back to their mountain villages owing money to the stores. The debts are waiting for them when they return the next season, and the cycle continues….

The stores survive because there is no significant pressure on agribusinesses to provide something better for field laborers. To the extent U.S. retailers scrutinize conditions at Mexican farms, the focus is on food safety, not worker welfare.

The social responsibility guidelines of most big companies don’t mention company stores….

At many export farms, laborers fall in debt the moment they step off the bus. Most are from Mexico’s impoverished indigenous regions. They typically have no money and won’t be paid for a week or more. They need immediate credit, and the tiendas oblige….

The federal government, sensitive to the fraught history of company stores, operates its own discount outlets in some camps and sends mobile stores to others. Some agribusinesses have formed cooperatives to sell staples to laborers at low prices. But such efforts have been too limited to break the grip of the tiendas….

[Mexican President] Peña Nieto went to Rene Produce in 2013 to kick off a campaign to eliminate hunger and malnutrition across Mexico. Rene seemed a logical place for the presidential announcement, given its success as a high-volume grower.

But when a Times reporter and photographer visited the farm in March, near the end of the 2014 harvest, food was scarce for many of the laborers.

After picking vegetables all day, men scavenged for ears of corn in a nearby field. Others dipped crude fishing lines in an irrigation canal. People filled drinking containers from the canal rather than pay for bottled water.

Part 4, Child Labor: Children harvest crops and sacrifice dreams in Mexico’s fields.

An estimated 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay. Alejandrina, 12, wanted to be a teacher. Instead, she became a nomadic laborer, following the pepper harvest from farm to farm….

Child labor has been largely eradicated at the giant agribusinesses that have fueled the boom in Mexican exports to the United States. But children pick crops at hundreds of small- and mid-size farms across Mexico, and some of the produce they harvest makes its way into American kitchens and markets.

The Times pieced together a picture of child labor on Mexican farms by interviewing growers, field bosses, brokers and wholesalers, and by observing children picking crops in the states of Sinaloa, Michoacan, Jalisco and Guanajuato….

Data on child labor are scarce; many growers and distributors will not talk about it. About 100,000 Mexican children under 14 pick crops for pay, according to estimates in a 2012 study by the World Bank and other international agencies. It is illegal to employ workers younger than 15….

The great majority of Mexican farm exports to the United States come from agro-industrial complexes. Pressure from big U.S. retailers and the Mexican government has driven child labor out of these operations over the last decade.

Elsewhere, it persists. Children work the fields throughout Mexico’s agricultural export regions. They pick tomatillos in Baja California and Michoacan and tomatoes in Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi. They de-stem strawberries in Baja California Sur. They bag coffee beans and cut sugar cane in Veracruz and Chiapas. The chile pepper harvest is especially dependent on underage workers….

Pepper plants stand 3 feet high and yield chiles about 3 inches long, dimensions perfectly suited to child pickers.

Many of the peppers destined for the U.S. in summer come from Guanajuato, some from farms near the ranch of former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

While in office, Fox was criticized for the presence of children in the region’s fields. When a Times reporter and photographer visited the area on a sweltering day in July 2013, there were 45 pickers at work in a pepper field about two miles from Fox’s hacienda.

Half were children.

Tragedy seemed ever-present on the harvest trail. According to Mexican media reports and data gathered by a charitable group, at least 100 children of farm laborers have been killed or injured since 2010: crushed by tractors, stricken by disease, drowned in irrigation canals or, most frequently, thrown from buses or open-bed trucks….

Update: Richard Marosi, Produce industry promises to improve Mexican farmworker conditions. Los Angeles Times, 20 December 2014.