This is the first installment in a three-part series concerning the issue of forced labor in the Mexican agriculture industry -Ed.
Forced labor is a situation in which humans are coerced into some type of work through threats, violence, debt accumulation, or confiscation of important personal documents including passports. Mexico is no stranger to forced labor; the colonial practice of encomienda is more than a painful memory of a violent past, as forced labor has continuously remained prevalent in Mexico even with the end of the colonial period. The Global Slavery Index estimated in 2018 that in Mexico, around 341,000 individuals were living in forced labor, a number that is exceeded in the Americas only by those of Brazil and America (369,000 and 403,000 people, respectively). These statistics can only be thought of as rough figures, and likely low estimates, due to human rights violators’ practices of secrecy. Of these 341,000 individuals, roughly 5% work in the agricultural sector compared to the 69% in the construction sector; however, despite the comparatively small number of workers involved in the sector, the products of Mexico’s agricultural forced labor, or fresh produce, make up 43% of the United States’ total fruit and vegetable imports, with all yearly exchanges adding up to a total value of $12.4 billion. In short, the United States, with its close economic association with Mexico, is also involved in Mexico’s forced labor situation. Increased awareness of forced labor conditions in Mexican agriculture raises the question of what measures are being taken to eradicate forced agricultural labor in Mexico, which will be discussed in this report.
The agricultural laborers are important factors in the prevention and eradication of forced agricultural labor because they are frequently the ones who report camps that are noncompliant with labor laws. A 2014 Los Angeles Times investigation that involved visits to thirty Mexican agricultural labor camps and interviews of laborers detailed their actions and their motivations. These laborers took these jobs, lured by promises of a “decent” salary for their families. “No fue justo porque llegaron pensando que ganarían un sueldo decente,” remarked Jorge Santiago de la Cruz, a laborer in BioParques 4, a grower that committed violations of basic workers’ rights. These workers are stuck in these camps because bosses illegally withhold the workers’ $8-$12 salary in order to force them to stay longer and the camp is surrounded by barbed wire and guards. This forced confinement of laborers prevents these laborers from reporting their camps’ human rights violations. Some try to escape these conditions despite the dangers of being caught (Fabian Batista woke up in the middle of the night to witness a fellow worker who had recently attempted to escape being bludgeoned by a guard). In the end, Bioparques 4’s violations were uncovered when a few workers escaped and reported the camp to authorities.
The success of these complaints filed by former workers is promising due to the fact that worker testimonies are the way in which most human rights violations at agricultural camps are discovered, but due to the reported incompleteness of scattered individual reports, it will be necessary to seek out the camps to gain a relatively complete picture of the situation if agricultural forced labor were to be eradicated.
The Agriculture Industry
The agriculture industry is making an effort called the “Ethical Charter.” This new initiative, presented by a coalition of North America’s biggest produce industry groups, aims to eradicate forced agricultural labor in Mexico by addressing all aspects of a worker’s life in a camp. Although it may seem like a panacea, there has been some controversy surrounding the charter. Emily Miggins, a former sustainability manager at Safeway, called the Ethical Charter the “Ethical Charter Lite” and equated it to “greenwashing.” Similarly, Erik Nicholson, the vice president of the United Farm Workers’ Association, mentioned that it was only designed to please consumers. Reading it, one can fully understand why this charter has elicited such responses. First of all, the charter lacks the detail that would be expected from a comprehensive charter drafted by experts in the field, glossing over the fine points of pre-existing labor laws and failing to mention any audits of camps, allowing camps to have free rein over inspections that happen to them.
The need for this charter is also questionable because the vast majority of supermarkets, like Whole Foods, Walmart, and Kroger, have adopted their own policies about labor standards for their suppliers that adhere closely to federal and international law and require their suppliers to agree to comply with these labor laws and third-party audits. However, these supermarkets have admitted the limitations of these audits, saying that it is impossible to be knowledgeable about all human rights violations happening in their supplier-run camps, taking a somewhat isolationist stance on the issue of forced labor, which probably comes in response to their exposed connections with questionable suppliers. Overall, the Ethical Charter, despite trying to fulfill a necessary job, is little good.
The Mexican Government
The Mexican government’s role in this industry is prominent due to the revenue it receives through the numerous cross-border transactions involving produce; the agriculture industry earned about $5 billion in 2012. Even though the Mexican government has laid out laws concerning the rights and welfare of laborers, it has failed in its efforts to enforce these laws, as shown by a 2010 report by the Federal Secretariat of Social Development, the branch of the government that is combating forced labor. The report, in section 2.1, states, “En adición, el desconocimiento de sus derechos, la falta de regulación y la insuficiente inspección laboral conduce frecuentemente a la violación de sus derechos laborales y humanos.” essentially pointing out that the Mexican government is incapable of addressing these problems actively and effectively. The report’s view is substantiated when underlying weak government enforcement was exposed in Sinaloa when one official incorrectly stated that delaying the payment of wages to employees was perfectly legal and when it was revealed that many of the government-run camps in the region were suffering from mismanagement problems. This already-weak regulation is basically rendered useless when wealthy growers enter endless appeals that delay any cracking down by federal investigators. “Nomás se ríen de nosotros…se burlan de la autoridad y de la ley,” said Armando Guzmán, an official in Mexico’s Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare. Due to the Mexican government’s inability to punish suppliers that violate labor laws, it should work with supermarkets so that the supermarkets can know which suppliers to terminate and bring economic consequences on.
There are many ways in which various individuals and organizations are working towards the eradication of forced agricultural labor in Mexico. First, some of the laborers that work in these camps are attempting to escape from horrible conditions in the camps and to inform authorities about the situation. Second, the agricultural industry and American supermarkets have released documents concerning labor laws and standards that attempt to reduce violations of labor laws in Mexican camps. Finally, the Mexican government is making largely unsuccessful attempts to crack down on growers who do not obey labor laws.
However grave this problem may be, these separate attempts by the three parties can be easily transformed into effective solutions. Eyewitness information, something that is necessary to starting investigations into camps, can be provided more frequently if information and evidence are gathered at the camps rather than if they only come from escaped workers. New guidelines can be more useful and widely accepted if they are made with a developmental mindset and address more integral aspects of the situation of Mexican agricultural forced labor. Mexican federal attempts to crack down on suppliers that have violated labor laws can be more fruitful if the supermarkets side with and collaborate with the Mexican government. This three-pronged approach– concerned with the three groups of people involved in the situation (laborers, suppliers, and the Mexican government) will help better combat the situation of Mexican agricultural forced labor.
– William Cho (’21)
Featured image: LA Times