Newsweek: “The Fair Food Program Should Be Extended to Mexico”…

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This month’s LA Times investigative series, “Product of Mexico: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables,”  sent shockwaves through the food industry with its explosive, multi-media documentation of appalling abuses on Mexican produce farms ranging from widespread child labor to modern-day slavery.  Given the key role Mexican produce exports have come to play in the US food market over the past two decades — with Mexican tomatoes, for example, found today on everything from fast-food burgers and subs to salad plates in celebrity chef restaurants from LA to New York City — the full fallout from the series is yet to be seen.  

But one thing is certain: the level of brutality, of sheer inhumanity, in Mexico’s fields is not sustainable in the 21st century.  Change is going to come, to the marketplace in the short run, and to Mexican produce fields in the longer run.  

Toward that latter goal, Newsweek last week published an op/ed by Susan Marquis, Dean of the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School, entitled “The Fair Food Program Should Be Extended to Mexico.”   It is a beautifully written piece, and should be read in its entirety, but here below is an extend excerpt:

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… [The LA Times] reports that workers in Mexico often live in rat-infested camps with little or no access to clean water and sanitation. Wage theft is common. Debt is incurred through sky-high prices at company stores and housing. And laborers work long hours under brutal conditions for meager wages.

Many Americans may be shocked to learn that, until recently, these same conditions existed not just in developing countries, but also in the tomato fields of Florida. That was before a transformational program brought together workers, growers and buyers to improve the lives of those who toil in the fields. 

A similar approach could offer help to exploited and oppressed Mexican laborers like those profiled in Marosi’s series.

Since the 2011 implementation of the Fair Food Program, spearheaded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Florida tomato worker wages have increased by 50 to 70 percent, conditions in the fields are some of the best in the nation, wage fraud and theft have disappeared and there has not been a single reported instance of sexual assault or modern-day slavery among participating growers.

The Fair Food Program has been supported by some of the same major buyers, notably Whole Foods and Walmart, that also buy Mexican produce. These companies voluntarily abide by the program’s code of conduct and buy tomatoes in the United States exclusively from Fair Food Program growers. 

Why has this commitment halted at the U.S.-Mexican border?

Most of the major U.S. buyers have “codes of conduct” or “social responsibility guidelines” that should apply to their Mexican producers. But these codes and guidelines have little or no impact without strict reporting and enforcement protocols and consequences for violations…

… The Fair Food Program is very different. A comprehensive approach based on cooperation between workers, growers, and buyers, the program includes 24-hour hot lines, rapid investigation by the Fair Food Standards Council and growers into reported problems, remediation plans to fix violations and market consequences for persistent violations. This has resulted in real change.

Serious worker protection must be about more than brand enhancement through high-visibility, low-effectiveness social responsibility programs. It must be about commitment to safe and humane working conditions and fair pay for the work that is done.

Take a few minutes to read the whole thing when you have a chance.  It is a well-crafted, well-reasoned opinion piece.

Of course, as we have discussed on this site before (most directly in a post entitled “Fear and Fair Cannot Coexist”), real labor reforms in the produce industry will only be possible when Mexico has addressed the deeper societal ills of rampant political corruption and drug-fueled violence that have rendered large swaths of the country ungovernable for the better part of a decade.  Until that time, the rural elite’s monopoly over state and economic power in Mexico will preclude any real voice for workers on the massive export farms that feed US markets with fresh tomatoes, peppers, avocados, cucumbers, and limes.  And the Fair Food Program is a worker-driven model for social responsibility that simply does not work if farmworkers themselves do not have a seat at the table.  

But, ultimately, Dean Marquis is right.  One day, a Fair Food Program for Mexico will not only be a way out of the feudal nightmare workers face today in that country’s fields, it will be the only way, because human rights violations as extreme as those documented in the LA Times series can only be fixed when the humans whose rights are in question themselves take a leading role in the defense and advancement of their own rights.