Part Two: A 21st century Christmas Carol for the food industry?…

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Nely Rodriguez, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, protests outside a Kroger shareholder meeting in Ohio earlier this year calling on the supermarket giant to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Despite the unconscionable labor conditions in Mexico’s fields exposed in this month’s Los Angeles Times investigative series, there are no farmworker organizations like the CIW in Mexico today, and no farmworkers leading analogous protests, because to do so would be, simply put, to run the very real risk of being beaten, kidnapped, or killed.

The market must be a force for real social change, not complicit in grower-led efforts to sweep child labor, violence against workers, and debt servitude under the rug;

Real social responsibility in Mexico’s fields will remain a distant dream until country’s deeper ills are addressed, workers free to play leading role in reforms…

First, a quick review.

In Part One of this three-part series, we looked at the response by produce industry insider Jim Prevor, also known as the “Perishable Pundit,” to the appalling labor conditions in Mexico’s produce industry revealed in the explosive Los Angeles Times investigative series, “Product of Mexico: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables.”  [And, yes, for those of you keeping count, this has grown into a three-part series because the subject of labor reform in the Mexican produce industry is simply too complex to tackle in two parts.]

As we pointed out in that first post, the reader of the “Pundit’s” response would have been forgiven if he or she had mistaken it for a holiday season parody, a sort of 21st century Scrooge’s take on the grinding poverty, rampant child labor, and humiliating abuse uncovered in Mexico’s fields.  Mr. Prevor wondered out loud whether the countless children — many of them under the age of 12 — working in the fields weren’t better off picking tomatoes and peppers than engaging in any imaginable alternative pursuit (say, for example, receiving an education in a public school).  He asked whether the workers whose wages were found to be illegally withheld by their employers until the end of the season weren’t themselves better off rather than exposing their savings to the risk of being stolen, or spending their earnings recklessly on things of their own choosing.  And so forth.  His arguments attacking the Times’ reporting were so extreme as to be laughable.

Except Mr. Prevor is not — intentionally at least — in the business of writing satire.  His work is widely read, and his opinions widely respected, in the U.S. produce industry.  And so we asked, in the spirit of the season, if the LA Times series would not serve as a long-overdue awakening for the US food industry, a sort of modern-day Christmas Carol for the multi-billion dollar retail food corporations that profit so handsomely from buying and selling the produce picked in such unconscionable conditions.  


And that question places us at the head of a long, long road toward a more modern, more humane agricultural industry in Mexico.  It is a road whose end, quite frankly, is not currently in sight.  But it is a road that must be taken.  

Standing still, as the LA Times series made abundantly clear, is not an option.

Step one: The end of denial…

To begin the journey, we turn once more to Dickens:


In naming one of the two miserable, cowering creatures hiding in the ghost’s cloak “Ignorance,” Dickens was referring not only to the ignorance to which child laborers were condemned in mid-19th century Britain by their brutal, all-consuming life of labor, but to the willful ignorance of the employers and businessmen who turned a blind eye to their suffering and justified their exploitation in the pursuit of their own unlimited wealth.  In the extended text of the original, Dickens wrote of the two children:

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” (emphasis added)

The “Doom” to which Dickens referred was that awaiting British society were it not to change course and enact deep societal reforms protecting children — and their parents — from the extremes of laissez faire capitalism.  Fortunately for future generations of Britons, those reforms were enacted and the society as a whole, not just a select few, profited.

The message from the LA Times series is clear: Mexico’s agricultural industry, like Victorian Britain before it, must undergo a radical metamorphosis.  It must reconstitute itself from the ground up and build a new industry founded on verifiable respect for human rights, reinforced with strong checks and balances that monitor and enforce those rights.  However, given the entrenched interests that have created today’s human rights crisis in Mexico, it is not realistic to expect the driving force for that transformation to come from within.  Rather, it must be catalyzed — demanded — by the only actors with the independent economic power sufficient to overcome those entrenched interests, the US-based corporations that buy the vast majority of Mexico’s produce exports.  

And that is why the Dickens’ Christmas Carol is the perfect cautionary tale for this 21st century narrative.  For far too long, the US food industry has, almost without exception, feigned ignorance of the deplorable conditions in Mexico’s fields and purchased cheap tomatoes there, no questions asked. To avoid the fate foretold by Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, US food industry leaders must themselves forswear the ignorance that has allowed these conditions to fester for so long, and face the findings of the LA Times series head on.  Once they have acknowledged that business as usual is no longer possible, they must accept their fair share of the responsibility for cleaning up the human rights abuses in the fields where they buy their tomatoes, peppers, avocados, cucumbers, and limes.  

Even the Pundit recognized this inevitable truth, concluding his post on the LA Times series with this message for his readers:

But transparency on the supply chain is increasingly going to be demanded, and this article is neither the first nor the last. The newspaper’s effort in putting together graphs showing the flow of produce is a game-changer. It is telling retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart that you own your supply chain and you will be held responsible for all that occurs within it.

Indeed, the first step down the road toward real labor reform in the Mexican produce industry is for the US-based food corporations that buy and sell Mexican produce — from Walmart and Subway to Wendy’s, Darden, and Kroger, just to name a few — to “own” the human rights violations in their supply chains.  Only when the major US buyers of Mexican produce acknowledge the abuses in their suppliers’ fields can they demand that those abuses cease.  

Step two: Take no shortcuts…

Having once recognized the urgent need for change, US-based buyers of Mexican produce must then credibly leverage their immense market power to bring about real, measurable reforms.  And that means conditioning their purchases on verifiable compliance with human rights standards designed, monitored, and enforced with the participation of workers.  No ifs, ands, or buts.


Notice the modifiers in the two sentences above: credibly, real, measurable, verifiable. And the big one: designed, monitored and enforced with the participation of workers.

When pressure for reform in the Florida tomato industry began to grow in the early 2000’s following a series of high profile slavery prosecutions and the successful end of the CIW’s Taco Bell boycott in 2005, the Florida tomato industry announced the formation of a grower-led social responsibility initiative with the acronym SAFE (Socially Accountable Farm Employers).  The Lakeland Ledger reported on the development at the time in an article entitled, “Growers Seeking SAFE Haven.”  Here’s an excerpt:

“WASHINGTON — Jay Taylor recalls the seeds being sown last spring in a tomato packinghouse in Palmetto, where members of the restaurant industry and Florida agriculture met to discuss an escalating labor war.

That March, Taco Bell had agreed to pay tomato pickers in Florida an extra penny per pound and to demand new labor standards from growers after a three year boycott and a run of bad press. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the boycott organizer, had cast an unflattering spotlight on growers with a shame campaign against a big corporate customer.

Vegetable growers and other restaurant chains knew the Bell deal, the first of its kind, tolled for them.

Taylor said the message from restaurant representatives was clear: “You guys have got to do something about this issue.”  read more 

And here is what the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights said at the time about SAFE:

RFK_AwardIt is important to note that SAFE’s code was written by agricultural employers without input from the workers it will affect. SAFE does not ensure worker participation in true multi-stakeholder collaboration, as McDonald’s requires of its suppliers in China, but instead undercuts efforts to create real change in the fields. The code also does nothing to address the urgent economic needs of the farmworkers in McDonald’s supply chain. Instead of guaranteeing a fair wage in the form of a real wage increase, as Taco Bell and Yum Brands have done, the SAFE code of conduct only commits employers to stop stealing wages from workers.

Regardless of the strength of the code of conduct, SAFE is not sufficiently independent from agricultural employers to ensure the code’s accurate monitoring or enforcement. Currently, SAFE is headed by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Redland Christian Migrant Association. The FFVA is a membership organization of agricultural employers, representing their interests. While the RCMA is an excellent child care provider, it has no expertise or experience with labor issues and, as much of its budget is funded directly by FFVA, it cannot be considered independent enough from agricultural employers to be a voice for fair labor standards.  read more

SAFE was quickly exposed as an industry-controlled sham, a public relations response to a human rights crisis that collapsed under its own failure to stem the continued flow of labor abuses — including two more modern-day slavery prosecutions — that it claimed to address on its members’ farms.  In 2010, after several more years of battle, the Florida tomato growers finally joined forces with the CIW to implement the Fair Food Program, and in the four short years since, the FFP and its worker-driven model of social responsibility have become the new gold standard for advancing human rights in agriculture.

But despite the abject failure of SAFE — both as an agent of long-overdue change and as a cynical effort at brand protection — Mexico’s growers decided to take a page from Florida’s old playbook and announced last week that they were forming their own industry-led version of SAFE, tentatively named the “International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance.”  Here is an excerpt from an article on the formation of the new group from the LA Times:


Produce industry officials on both sides of the border say they are launching an effort to ensure that workers at thousands of Mexican farms that export fruit and vegetables to the United States have safe and sanitary housing, decent wages and access to healthcare and day care…

… The new initiative will take aim at some of those issues [exposed in the LA Times series], said Mario Robles, director of the Confederation of Agribusiness Assns. in Sinaloa, a trade group that represents some of Mexico’s largest exporters.

The alliance will also include the Fresh Produce Assn. of the Americas, an Arizona-based trade group that represents more than 100 U.S.-based distributors and marketers of Mexican produce, said Lance Jungmeyer, the association’s president.”That’s part of our plan. To make sure all laws are followed. If the laws say pay every week, then that has to be. Companies that don’t will have to leave the alliance,” Robles said Friday, adding that such companies could lose access to Mexican government subsidies.

The trade groups in the two countries handle about 80% of the exports from Mexico to the U.S., Jungmeyer said. Produce exports from Mexico have tripled in the last decade, to $7.6 billion. Half of the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico.

“The organizations have signed a pledge that will relate to developing programs to highlight the kinds of social responsibility practices that I think are necessary these days,” Jungmeyer said. “I think transparency … is something that the public wants.”

Jungmeyer said the industry’s new social responsibility initiative was part of its overall goal of improving working conditions. Talks had been going on for a year, he said, and the announcement of the plan, one day after the series’ first installment was published, was not “strictly” in response to The Times’ coverage, he said.

Let there be no room for misunderstanding:  The “International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance,” will not root out abuse in Mexico’s fields, and US buyers of Mexican produce should not take this shortcut to social responsibility — and rely on the Alliance to guarantee respect for human rights in their supply chains — or they will, sooner or later, be tarred with its inevitable failure.  

How can we take such a definitive position?  Because the “International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance” is a public relations response to a real human rights crisis, rushed out to control damage to sales in response to the LA Times series and to give willing buyers shelter from the storm.  Because workers played no role in the formation of the Alliance and will play no meaningful role in its enforcement.  And because the Alliance’s enforcement mechanisms, if any, are cloudy and weak.  

The Alliance is SAFE redux, but this time in an environment many, many times more toxic to human rights than Florida’s “Harvest of Shame” ever was.  Which brings us to perhaps the most important crossroads in this long, long road to a more humane Mexican produce industry…

Fear and Fair Cannot Coexist…

In a post from October of this year about the recent disappearance of 43 student activists in the Mexican state of Guerrero at the hands of the police and local drug gangs — a post written well ahead of the revelations of the LA Times series — we wrote:

In the Florida of the ’50s and ’60s, justice for farmworkers was still a distant dream.  At a minimum, faith in the rule of law is a necessary prerequisite for any human rights campaign like the Fair Food Program to succeed, and it would be decades before any such social peace was to be achieved in Florida.  For workers to play the role of front line defenders of their own rights that they do in the FFP, they have to know that they will not be fired or beaten — or worse — for complaining.  Likewise, investigators have to know that their lives are not in danger as they crisscross the state on backroads and in hidden fields in pursuit of a more modern, more humane agricultural labor system.  

Only in that context can the CIW’s oft-cited formula for social justice — Consciousness + Commitment = Change — stand a chance to work.

“I think, therefore they disappear me”

Compare the CIW’s formula with graffiti seen at one of last week’s marches in Mexico:  


“I think, therefore they disappear me.”  Descartes updated for a surreal world of constant violence.

Critical consciousness is the beginning of a better life under the Fair Food Program.  In Mexico, it is the end.

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 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.  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

This is why there is no easy fix for the problems exposed in the LA Times series, and anyone telling you there is one — be tit a grower, buyer, a Mexican government official or even a “social responsibility auditor” — is hoping you don’t know any better.

The sad truth is, for there to be any hope of real human rights enforcement in the Mexican produce industry, workers must be free to play a leading role in the monitoring and enforcement of those rights.  But there is no CIW in Mexico, and farmworkers in Mexico are not free.

Mexico is a country where, for generations, peasants have lived economically and politically demarcated lives, locked into an existence of poverty and powerlessness that has no real analog in recent US culture.  And that was before uncontrolled drug violence and official corruption erupted in 2005 and made life in Mexico’s countryside a living nightmare for anyone outside of a tightly defined circle of elites.  In case we might forget how bad things have gotten there, two stories from this holiday season — in just the two short weeks since the LA Times series ran — serve as timely reminders:


Mexican Police Helped Drug Cartel Massacre 314 Migrants

After years of silence, the office of Mexico’s Attorney General declassified a document admitting police officers had participated in the kidnapping and massacre of hundreds of migrants throughout northern Mexico. While working for Los Zetas drug cartel, police provided illicit protection, assisted in kidnappings, and turned a blind eye to the investigation of numerous mass graves. Caught in a turf war between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, at least 314 migrants have died at the hands of the police and cartels… read more 

Mexican priest, who spoke out against drug gang, found shot dead

A Mexican priest who was kidnapped on Monday has been found shot dead.  Officials said the body of Father Gregorio Lopez was discovered near the southwestern city of Ciudad Altamirano, reports the BBC.

Father Lopez had been seized by gunmen from a seminary where he taught. It is unclear why he has been killed.

However, a friend of the priest told local media that Father Lopez was kidnapped after he accused a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, of the abduction and murder of 43 students in September.  Lopez is the third priest to be killed in the state this year… read more

Mexico’s peasantry, as the LA Times series ably demonstrates, makes up the vast majority of the Mexican produce industry’s workforce.  But Mexico’s farmworkers are powerless to act in their own defense against the economic and political powers that control their jobs, their communities, and their lives.

That is why, as we said at the top of this post, the end of the long, long road toward a more modern, more humane produce industry in Mexico is still not in sight.  But unlike Mexico’s laborers, US buyers of Mexican produce are not powerless to speed the day when labor conditions in Mexico’s tomato industry approach those found here in Florida.  In fact, they may be the only force that can.

So, check back after the new year for the third and final installment in this series, as we look at Step Three on the road to real, verifiable reform to Mexico’s fields and what US food industry leaders must do to give reform a fighting chance.