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Mexico Agrees to Pay Farmworkers Wages After Two-Month Strike in San Quintin

The San Quintin strike captured international headlines and pointed to poor conditions for farm laborers within Mexico's agricultural sector. Baja California police are accused of raiding laborers' homes before the government intervened.

by Andrea Noel
May 18 2015, 5:20am

Photo by Roberto Armocida/AP via La Jornada Baja California

They worked in the fields of Baja California picking strawberries and tomatoes meant for supermarkets in the United States while getting paid just $0.80 an hour.

The farm workers who rose up against huge transnational growers in San Quintin in mid-March lived in inhumane conditions, with no required government healthcare. They made less than 100 pesos a day because growers forced them to work extra hours without extra pay.

After nearly two months on strike, Mexico's government agreed last Thursday to negotiate with the workers and producers, and pick up the difference on the workers' pay — faced with the agricultural companies' refusal to meet the workers' demands.

The workers of San Quintin thus came closer to formally ending the strike that started on March 17, when laborers left the fields and demanded access to government health care and salary increases for the hundreds of men and women who work the fields for less than $1 an hour. Protests turned violent earlier this month when police raided some of the laborers homes and arbitrarily beat and detained people.

Their case captured international headlines and pointed to widespread poor conditions for farm laborers within Mexico's agricultural sector.

Baja California's council of agricultural producers said it did not agree to the thirteen terms negotiated by state authorities and produce workers, refusing to grant more than a 15 percent pay raise. By June 4, the government said it would work with the companies to set a new wage that is as close to the workers' demand of 200 pesos ($13 dollars). The final point negotiated says the workers will be paid retroactively to March 24.

If the state follows through with its promise to pick up the tab, for some workers this could amount to almost double their current salary. That, combined with the promise of healthcare, may be just enough to get them back to the fields. Strawberries have laid in the sun to rot, and tomatoes meant for US export have been unable to move north due to highway blockades led by the protesters.

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The laborers protested years of abusive and exploitative behavior, including arbitrary wage deductions, 12-hour shifts, frequent unchecked exposure to agrochemicals, uncompensated injury, sexual harassment and assault, and inhumane conditions that Mexico's national human rights commission has equated to "modern slavery."

Due to the strike, workers managed to completely immobilize the export industry in San Quintin for eight weeks, costing growers tens of millions of dollars. According to just one company that owns a mega-farm in the region, Berrymex, the labor dispute cost the organic berry producer more than $20 million in losses.

On May 9, dozens of agricultural workers were wounded during a violent encounter with Baja California state police. According to the laborers, officers raided their homes, indiscriminately attacking the impoverished community of predominantly indigenous workers who migrate from other parts of Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Guerrero states.

State authorities claimed the police were responding to complaints from a local producer, who reported that a group of "vandals" were attempting to enter his ranch illegally.

Baja California's general secretary Francisco Rueda explained that the workers became involved in the mix after almost 500 neighbors came out to defend the "vandals," engaging with authorities by hurling rocks at them.

Several workers were arrested during the confrontation, and at least one police vehicle was set on fire — an increasingly common form of protest in Mexico. Police at the scene responded with sound bombs and rubber bullets. Fourteen people were taken into custody, and more than 70 people were injured.

Four of the workers detained had their initial bail set at an exorbitant 7.5 million pesos, or almost $500,000 — more than what they would earn if they worked every day for 170 years.

One of thirteen points agreed upon on Thursday by authorities and striking workers is the reduction of the detainees bail to 10,000 pesos, or roughly $660, a prime example of the abuses the indigenous laborers have had to contend with for years. The four remaining workers detained were released on Friday.

The day before the violence, workers had expected to meet with the Mexico's interior secretary, but the reunion was unexpectedly cancelled by subsecretary Luis Enrique Miranda Nava, after he allegedly told a spokesman for the group of laborers he could not come because "he didn't have a way to get there."

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Hector Lujan, the head of Berrymex, a national company that exports several types of berries to major US food retailers, including Whole Foods, Costco and Sam's Club, denied that his company has treated workers unfairly, but did comment on the current state of the abandoned fields, after his fruit has gone unpicked for almost two months.

"We want to save what remains of the crops," he said in an interview before the agreement was announced. "The season in almost over. It's over for us, and for the workers, because their income has also been stifled by not being able to harvest at the peak of production."

The farmworkers, who had called for an international boycott of products exported from the area, are expected to return to work, following the June 4 salary adjustment.

Related: 'People Are Fed Up': Jalisco Elections Could Upend Traditional Politics in Mexico

Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk.