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Mexican Laborers Want Americans to Know Who Picks Their Fruits and Vegetables

Day laborers in Mexico endure long hours in brutal working conditions harvesting crops that end up on the shelves of US supermarkets.

by Amparo Rodriguez
Aug 18 2015, 2:05pm

Imagen por Amparo Rodríguez

On March 17, 2015, hundreds of fed up Mexican day laborers in the Baja California city of San Quintin began a series of demonstrations to protest their awful working conditions. It was a milestone, and a moment that drew international attention to the decades of exploitation they have endured.

Their demands were clear: Better wages, social benefits, and an end to sexual harassment by patrons against the wives of laborers. As San Quintin labor leader Fidel Sanchez noted, all of those things are already supposed to be enshrined in Mexico's constitution.

The San Quintin Valley is located in the southern end of the Baja Peninsula, sprawling over an area of approximately 80 miles. Despite dry weather, the valley is ideal for farming high quality fruits and vegetables, most of which are exported to the US.

More than 90,000 indigenous people have settled in the valley in recent decades, according to El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research institute that specializes in border issues. These people, including children, are the cheap labor force that works in San Quintin's fields.

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

A child picks chili pepper from a farm near Culiacán, Sinaloa. (Photo by Amparo Rodríguez)

Transnational companies that operate in the area and sell their produce to American supermarkets say they pay laborers between $5 and $9 per hour, but labor leaders told VICE News they typically receive $7 total for an entire day's work.

"Here you could not tell a patron 'I don't like what you are paying me,' because he would answer 'There's the exit, go back to your home, there are many people willing to work,'" Sanchez told VICE News. "That's why people kept quiet and endured this treatment."

After continuous protests, the government promised to increase wages to a minimum of $12 per day, still far less than what laborers working across the border in the US earn. It remains to be seen whether all of the companies that operate in the area will comply.

Day laborers in at least 19 other states in Mexico endure similarly poor working conditions. Some of these workers are among the quarter million people who live under modern-slavery conditions, according to the Walk Free Foundation's 2014 Global Slavery Index.

More than two million Mexicans in search of work follow a migration route that stretches thousands of miles across the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Durango, according to the latest figures from the country's Social Development Secretary. This migration has happened for decades. Chances are that if you are born a day laborer, you will die the same — and so will your children.

The migrants struggle to create tight communities as they travel constantly with the agricultural cycle, which makes it more difficult for them to band together and defend their interests.

'Ask the supermarkets if they know where the product comes from.'

Adults and children endure long days in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit harvesting peppers, eggplants, melons, and other types of produce. Workers are offered no gear to protect against the pesticides that are used on the crops. The best items are shipped to North America, Europe, or Japan. Lower quality fruits and vegetables stay in Mexico for national consumption.

Despite efforts by the Mexican government, the International Workers' Organization, and others, child labor is still a reality in Mexico, with an estimated 100,000 kids working in fields all over the country. Many families see their children as merely another source of income.

Most children of migrant laborers do not attend school, leaving future generations trapped in a cycle of poverty. Mexican law forbids children under 15 years from working, but the government inspectors are required to give 48 hours notice before visiting a field — more than enough time to hide underage workers. Malnutrition and stomach diseases are common afflictions, and the minors are constantly at risk of accidents caused by machinery.

The homes of day laborers lack the most basic necessities. Several people cram into small rooms that don't even have mattresses or running water. Parasites and rodent infestations are also an issue. Children locked up alone in their houses while their parents work.

"Day laborers do not have the right to vote, they are not entitled for social welfare, they don't have identity cards… Some of them don't even have their birth certificates, which means they are not citizens of their own country," Celso Ortíz, a migrant researcher at the University of Sinaloa, told VICE News.

Related: Why Residents of Mexico City Are Organizing Themselves Against Parking Meters

Day laborers wash clothes and bath in a polluted irrigation canal. (Photo by Amparo Rodríguez)

Despite the long workdays, most day laborers have no savings. Many end up in debt, since they are forced to shop for food at expensive stores owned by their patrons. Other field owners withhold documents or wages to ensure their workers don't leave.

Mexico is the second largest supplier of produce to the US, according to the Department of Agriculture. The average American consumer has no idea who picks their food, and how those people live and work.

Many socially responsible stores have vowed to guarantee the products they place on their shelves have been picked according to the law. But there's still a long way to go, since Mexico has no effective government surveillance and control mechanisms to protect the human and working rights of laborers.

Sanchez, the leader of the San Quintin labor movement, believes change will only come when American consumers realize the human cost of their food.

"We invite our brothers who consume our product to ask the supermarkets if they know where the product comes from, or if it is truly complying with Mexican law," he said.

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Watch The VICE News documentary, The Fruits of Mexico's Cheap Labor:

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