BREAKING NEWS: Explosive LA Times investigative report blows lid off “story of exploitation and extreme hardship” in Mexican tomato fields…

[hupso title=”BREAKING: @LATimes exposes story of exploitation and extreme hardship in Mexican tomato fields” url=”http://ciw-online.org/blog/2014/12/la-times-1/“]

“The real truth is that we’re work animals for the fields”

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Child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, violence against workers, inhumane living conditions, and more make up the mind-boggling Los Angeles Times portrait of an industry out of control in Mexico — rife with labor abuse and free from effective government or market forces for reform — where virtually all US food corporations source fully 50% of tomatoes consumed in the US.  
(All images and video in this post are from the original Los Angeles Times report)

Fear, corruption, corporate indifference allow greed and abuse to run rampant;

Contrast to Fair Food Program, Florida tomato industry, could not be more stark;

Ball now in US retailers’ court, denial no longer an option…

Where to begin?

We have brought you news of forced labor in Mexico’s tomato harvest before.  The conditions were indeed shocking, but the story died quickly.

We have shared with you our analysis of how Mexico’s current descent into a spiral of anarchy, political corruption, and drug violence renders any hope of real human rights protections for farmworkers there a distant dream.  In that piece, entitled “Fear and Fair Cannot Coexist,” we touched on the recent disappearance of 43 student human rights activists in the state of Guerrero and reflected on its meaning in relation to the historic human rights advances taking place in Florida’s fields today. 

But nothing we have read or written before on the abysmal state of human rights in the Mexican tomato industry compares to the multi-part investigative series, “Product of Mexico: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables,” published by the Los Angeles Times this week.  Yesterday, the first in the four-part series — an overview of the industry and the forces that shape farm labor poverty and exploitation there entitield “Harsh Harvest” — appeared in the Sunday Times, with the promise of three more to come on the topics of forced labor, company stores, and child labor.  

“The more protected they are, the less they work”

The scope of the report and the degree of abuse are so profound that it is almost overwhelming.  The video below, which accompanies the online version of the first installment in the series, provides an excellent summary of the reporter’s findings:

 

The report pulls no punches, listing the abuses — and the structural forces behind their perpetuation — at the very top of the Sunday story:

The 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 in 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.

A conversation with a labor contractor, Luis Garcia, neatly sums up what appears to be the prevailing attitude of employers toward labor in the industry.  After brushing off his own alleged history with forced labor — “They said I beat people. Lies, all lies,” Garcia said, bristling. “I wouldn’t be here today talking to you if it was true, would I?” — the contractor explains why, in his opinion, reform would be counterproductive: “The more protected they are, the less they work.”

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“They just laugh at us…  They mock authority and mock the letter of the law.”

In a functioning state, a mix of forces are usually at work to keep abuses like those documented in the LA Times investigation in check.  Government oversight, non-governmental watchdog organizations, even basic cultural norms all serve to keep the exploitation of workers in an industry as large as Mexico’s produce industry — according to the report, “farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers” — within certain accepted (if nonetheless unacceptable) parameters.

But Mexico is not a functioning state.

Crippled by a combination of wholesale corruption and ineptitude, government oversight of the produce industry is non-existent. This passage from the Times’s report is telling:

“The Mexican government would be the first line of protection for Mexican workers,” said Dan Mandel, president of SunFed, a distributor for supermarkets across the U.S.

Enforcement of Mexican labor laws in Sinaloa is feeble. One state official insisted, incorrectly, that withholding wages until the end of a contract was legal.

Federal labor inspectors are clear on the law but said they were largely powerless to crack down on deep-pocketed growers, who can stymie enforcement with endless appeals.

“They just laugh at us,” said Armando Guzman, a senior official with Mexico’s federal Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare. “They mock authority and mock the letter of the law.”

The government’s abdication of its responsibility to monitor labor conditions is so great as to be almost absurd.  The Times reporter notes, “Some of the worst camps were linked to companies that have been lauded by government and industry groups. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto presented at least two of them with ‘exporter of the year’ honors.”

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In some of the worst camps profiled, workers bathe and wash clothes in irrigation ditches due to the lack of running water in the camps.

Due to the unchecked power of Mexico’s drug gangs and their well-earned reputation for violence, non-governmental organizations are powerless as well to step into the vacuum created by the government’s incompetence.  The report notes, “Many farms are in areas torn by drug violence, which has discouraged media coverage and visits by human rights groups and academic researchers.”

In large parts of Mexico, there are no rules.  As a result, the weakest of Mexico’s citizens — the millions of impoverished peasants who provide the labor for the country’s burgeoning produce industry — suffer without recourse.

“We take any and all claims regarding worker conditions seriously and are looking into each of the points you raise”…

But the fact that Mexico has descended into a state of virtual anarchy doesn’t excuse the US-based retail food corporations that — like that country’s unscrupulous growers, corrupt government officials, and rapacious drug lords — make their own handsome profits from the sale of Mexican produce while the men and women and children who pick it face unimaginable abuses.

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The Times report traced the exploitation it discovered in Mexico’s fields to the grocery stores and restaurants in the US where the fruit of that exploited labor is sold, and the story of corporate indifference it tells is every bit as disturbing as the first-hand accounts of violence and squalor in Mexico’s labor camps.  The list of multi-billion dollar food corporations — including Walmart, Safeway, Olive Garden, Whole Foods, Albertsons, and Subway — connected to the conditions in the piece was long, but in truth the companies named are only a small fraction of the thousands of US food companies that have for years bought Mexican tomatoes and other produce without regard for the gross mistreatment of labor in its production.

The story of one farm where abuses were rampant, San Emilio, paints a stark picture of what happens when companies paper over abuses with claims of corporate social responsibility rather than engage in the real, hard, day-to-day work of enforcement:

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The U.S. companies linked to Agricola San Emilio through distributors have plenty of rules, but they serve mainly to protect American consumers, not Mexican field hands.

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.

Asked to comment on conditions at Agricola San Emilio, Subway said in a statement: “We will use this opportunity to reinforce our Code of Conduct with our suppliers.” The code says suppliers must ensure that workers “are fairly compensated and are not exploited in any way.”

Safeway said: “We take any and all claims regarding worker conditions seriously and are looking into each of the points you raise.”

In its vendor code of conduct, Safeway says that suppliers must offer a “safe and healthy work environment” and that it “will not tolerate any departure from its standards.” Vendors are expected to “self-monitor their compliance,” the code says.

The Times report couldn’t be more clear: The US corporations that profit from the sale of Mexican produce send inspectors to monitor conditions on the ground in Mexico, but the conditions they choose to monitor have nothing to do with human rights and the welfare of the workforce, but rather only with food safety and the quality of the produce.  They leave the human rights monitoring up to employers.

According to the report, due to the lack of consumer awareness of conditions in Mexican fields and the absence of public pressure for reform, US food corporations doing business in Mexico don’t even feel the need to make the pretense of corporate social responsibility, much less truly practice it.

What is to be done?

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Sunday’s report is a truly distressing picture of greed, abuse, and indifference.  And it is only the first in a four-part investigative series.

We have excerpted long portions here in this post, but the report itself is still far more substantial.  If you care about human rights in the food industry — and you probably do if you are here — you really have to read the whole thing.

We will continue to cover the series as it unfolds, and we will dig deeper into the story with our own analysis.  But one conclusion is already perfectly clear: This whole series, and the courageous reporting that made it possible, will mean nothing if there is not a market response.  Status quo in the marketplace will guarantee the grim status quo in human rights.  And that is simply unacceptable.

When we first brought you news of the huge Mexican forced labor case in 2012, we wrote:

Of course, multi-billion dollar food companies that operate across the country and across the globe need to fill their massive demand for tomatoes with purchases from places beyond the Fair Food Program. No one is denying those bedrock realities of today’s global marketplace. Geography and the sheer size of their demand won’t allow those companies to direct all their purchases to the producers whose human rights practices are the best in the market.

But what we are witnessing today among all too many retail food companies is much more than the unavoidable consequence of their global footprint. Rather, what those companies are demonstrating is an active preference for the lowest price regardless of human rights. read more 

And when we reported on the disappearance of the 43 student activists in Guerrero, we wrote:

Mexico is light years away from a Fair Food Program of its own.  If last month’s events make one thing clear, it is that seeking real social justice and the protection of farmworkers’ fundamental human rights can get you killed there.  And as long as that is the case, Mexican tomatoes and other crops will be harvested in an environment that provides no real transparency, no real protections for workers’ rights, and no chance of verifiable social responsibility.  

In light of this violently abusive environment, no grocery chain or restaurant company that buys tomatoes from Mexico can afford to turn a blind eye to that reality any longer.  That is not to say that they shouldn’t buy Mexican tomatoes, just that they shouldn’t make any pretense of social responsibility when they do so.  Increasingly, the choice to buy Mexican tomatoes is one consciously made to exalt price and variety over social accountability, because the Florida tomato industry, thanks to the Fair Food Program, is light years ahead of Mexico when it comes to transparency and the verifiable protection of the fundamental human rights of its workers.  read more

Perhaps it is time for us to stop lamenting the conditions in Mexico and start doing something about them.  And perhaps we can start by demanding that the US retail food companies use their considerable market power not only to pursue ever greater profits, but to end the abject human misery that has helped make those profits possible for far too long, and to support workers and producers who are doing things the right way.  

There is an option, a market alternative where human rights are verifiably protected precisely because the workers themselves play the leading role in the protection and advancement of their own rights.  The Fair Food Program and the Florida tomato industry where it was born represent the only proven model of Worker-driven Social Responsibility in the produce industry, and the very first thing US retail food companies can do to start the process of reform is support that program to the fullest extent possible.  And while the LA Times report tells the story of a horrific norm in the Mexican produce industry, there are exceptions to that norm in Mexico as well, and those exceptional farms must be supported with increased market share, too.

The LA Times report is, in today’s political lexicon, a “game changer.”  Its findings of unchecked human rights violations and wholesale corporate indifference cannot be un-found.  The status quo cannot continue.  

Check back soon for more from the Times and more from the Campaign for Fair Food as we unpack this unprecedented look at life in Mexico’s tomato fields.