"The contrast between the treatment of produce and of people is stark."
December 8, 2014 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Product of Mexico: Hardship on Mexico's farms, a bounty for U.S. tables — the first in a series of four Los Angeles Times long-form stories about labor conditions discovered during an 18-month investigation of Mexican vegetable farms that supply produce to the United States.
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.
posted by tonycpsu (38 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I get so tired of feeling bad for everything I buy. My phone: rare earth minerals. My food: GMO or exploited workers. Eating out: Illegal immigrant workers in the kitchen. Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart. Every other retail place: shitty wages.

I would love to only go to places that were rated, "Not rat fucks."

Seriously, tell me how to live without going broke or harming others or feeling bad that I have more than some. Sign me up.

Let's say in this case I decide to "buy American" and insist on American citizens paid a fair wage. How does that help these guys?

I read an article about how once Nike was forced to shut down a plant because they were paying "sweat shop" wages, and the locals were pissed because Nike was paying twice what others were. I'm willing to pay more to get more (and that counts knowing theres fair trade in there). I just want to enter my PIN and not know someone is being harmed by my purchases.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:16 PM on December 8, 2014 [11 favorites]


What infuriates me the most are the pat answers of, "Oh, that violates our corporate standards," and subsequent disavowals of all culpability for the exploitative practices of their suppliers. As if there's no nod and wink involved.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:24 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's good to hear that the U.S. is keeping around its old-fashioned tradition of slave-labor-based agriculture
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:26 PM on December 8, 2014


The abuse these workers suffer is sickening. Unfortunately, you can find similar abuses right here in the US, so trying to avoid produce from Mexico may not even be a solution (for the consumer anyway).
posted by orme at 6:28 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


It's good to hear that the U.S. is keeping around its old-fashioned tradition of slave-labor-based agriculture

Is it fair though to expect the US to be the world's moral compass? Seriously, perhaps be glad that Mexico doesn't give a shit about its citizens? If Mexico had basic worker protections in place the US couldn't exploit them. Do you think these people are doing better dealing with Mexican companies than US ones?
posted by cjorgensen at 6:30 PM on December 8, 2014


cjorgensen: are you shooting the messenger(s) here?

The world is fucked up -- it will take a lot A LOT to make it better. Why would it be easier to create a more just world than it is for workers to survive in the one that exists?

There's a lot to do. No single change any individual makes will be free of downsides... but we keep trying.
posted by allthinky at 6:30 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


Not shooting the messenger. Was seriously saying, sorry it sucks, would love a way to not contribute to the suckage, don't pretend one country is to blame.

A wiser man than me pointed out there's a lot of inequity in the world. We can only be responsible for our own actions and try our best to influence the actions of others. Beyond that being upset is mostly just a way to be depressed. Like I wrote above…I'd love for easy ways to not contribute to others' misery. Often declining what's offered isn't a helpful solution.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:38 PM on December 8, 2014


I can only think this will get worse. With the decline of the middle class in "first world" countries, and more and more working poor and an attitude (at least in the States it seems) that effectively demonizes and belittles the poor being openly and proudly displayed by many politicians and others I don't have much hope for the future. Very few of us will be able to afford big ticket items either now or in the future (houses, cars, decent furniture, etc.) so the race to the bottom of the barrel is full on while a few others rake in grotesque amounts of cash.
posted by juiceCake at 6:43 PM on December 8, 2014


If Mexico had basic worker protections in place the US couldn't exploit them.

If Mexcio had basic worker protections the US wouldn't buy from them.

This reminds me of an old TheLastPsychiatrist article.

The "system" we have includes what is basically slave labor, in this case, from Mexico. Why?

Because we, the consumer, want produce that is cheap. We, the consumer, can't afford $6 for a head of lettuce, but that's what it might cost if it was grown here in America, or in Mexico with American-style labor protections. American stores want to sell produce at that price. Americans have convinced themselves that small local farms are a luxury for hipsters and personally growing food is a pipe dream.

So, the result is slave labor to make lettuce. The system doesn't do it because it's awesome, the system does it because it added up the wants.

The system doesn't care if you say you don't want slave lettuce, as long as you buy slave lettuce. The system doesn't care about your feelings but only about your actions.

It's true, the implication is that you might have to take radical action, including some pretty severe personal sacrifices, in order to avoid harming people in Mexico. If you aren't willing to do that, well, then... you don't want it. The system sees that, and keeps on grinding away..
posted by mrbigmuscles at 7:12 PM on December 8, 2014 [20 favorites]


Twenty miles away, at Campo Isabelitas, operated by the agribusiness Nueva Yamal, families used buckets in their room to relieve themselves because, they said, the toilets were filthy and lacked water.

Men defecated in a cornfield. Workers could be seen bathing in an irrigation canal; they said the camp's showers were out of water.

Charles Ciruli, a co-owner of Arizona-based Ciruli Bros., which distributes Nueva Yamal tomatoes, visited the camp after being told about conditions there by The Times.

Through an attorney, he said that the men's bathrooms "did not meet Ciruli's standards" and that repairs had been made to "reinstate running water." The attorney, Stanley G. Feldman, said in a letter that the women's showers and toilets were "fully functioning," with a paid attendant.

Asked why workers were washing in the irrigation canal, Feldman wrote: "Ciruli cannot explain this with certainty, but it was told that it may be a cultural practice among some workers."

He added: "Ciruli will consult with the on-farm social worker and doctor to determine if a worker education campaign may be appropriate in this case."
The complete lack of interest in actually caring about what their suppliers are doing, and the willful acceptance of the obvious lie they were told---it's not even surprising at all, but it's still staggering to me.
posted by coolname at 7:14 PM on December 8, 2014


Unfortunately, you can find similar abuses right here in the US, so trying to avoid produce from Mexico may not even be a solution (for the consumer anyway).

The section on Immokalee, FL in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is damning in this regard. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been documenting a litany of abuses - including slavery - on US farms for over 20 years.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:19 PM on December 8, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'll add to this. I picked berries [raspberries and strawberries] in the summer when school was out and no matter how hard I tried the professionals were absurdly more productive than I was. The best I could manage when I challenged myself, working as hard and as fast as I could for the typical 6 hour day [you pick berries in the early morning, in the afternoon they become soft and difficult to seperate from the plant] I was outproduced by a factor of five [The row bosses kept score and at the end of the day they would highlight the more productive workers].

It was weird.

Most people moved at a similar speed, pick pick pick pick pick. But there is an effeciency. Picking berries isn't something you would ordinarily think of as a skill but I had my ass kicked, badly, no matter how hard I tried.
posted by vapidave at 7:22 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


Picking berries isn't something you would ordinarily think of as a skill

There are a lot of unskilled jobs that are like that. We think, can I do it? And the answer is probably yes. We don't ask the follow-up questions, like: can I do it well? And can I do it well enough and efficiently enough to make a profit doing it? And even after that: can I do it better than others competing for the same work? "Unskilled" mostly means there's little barrier to entry for people who might be better than you. We don't fail to pay unskilled workers decently because they're not worth it. We fail because the market makes it really, really easy.
posted by asperity at 7:45 PM on December 8, 2014 [11 favorites]


There are a lot of unskilled jobs that are like that. We think, can I do it?

You also have to ask yourself, "can I do this without injuring myself, or without exhausting myself to the point that I can't get up tomorrow and come to work?"

There are hundreds of manual agricultural tasks that non-agricultural, highly educated people think are simple, but actually require quite a bit of know-how and finesse to pull off while balancing economy, the vagaries of nature, and the limits of your body and your co-workers.

John Stewart Collis' 1946 The Worm Forgives the Plow - which describes his transition from middle class office worker to Land Army farm laborer in WW2 Britain - is an excellent meditation on this fact.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:16 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


I have friends who do day labor in the fields and it is a constant embarrassment to me how much harder than me they work. It's hard and very skilled work and it is a shame that we devalue it.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:29 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


> Seriously, tell me how to live without going broke or harming others or feeling bad that I have more than some. Sign me up.

You can buy a pill for that.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 9:30 PM on December 8, 2014


cjorgensen: "My food: GMO or exploited workers."

Here's some good news, you can stop feeling bad about GMOs, because there's nothing wrong with them in any way.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:10 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


Here's some good news, you can stop feeling bad about GMOs, because there's nothing wrong with them in any way.

Well, they aren't going to hurt you, although they might be modified to produce more favorable properties such as color and size over flavor and nutrients, but it's a hell of a lot better than exploiting workers.
posted by JauntyFedora at 10:20 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


>Americans have convinced themselves that small local farms are a luxury for hipsters and personally growing food is a pipe dream.

I mean, yeah, because for many people, myself included, that is a fact of life. And actually it predates the local/home grown trends of the past say 10-15 years. Casting it as a lifestyle choice is a gross simplification that ignores the broader historical context of the development of big ag in the US.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 11:01 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't think the point of any of this is to make you feel guilty for buying a lettuce. The point is that this kind of efficient exploitation of labour is essential to the functioning of capitalism, not some unfortunate side-effect that we liberals can benevolently legislate away when we find it.

Wherever you get your lettuce, the real drag is that it is necessary for some people to live like this so that others can, say, go to Harvard and then invent Uber or something.
posted by colie at 3:07 AM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


"Let's say in this case I decide to "buy American" and insist on American citizens paid a fair wage. How does that help these guys?"

If there's money to be got from US pockets, other countries will try to get it. I think upholding, DMANDING ethical treatment of workers whether bought here from US companies or elsewhere puts pressure on companies to treat companies right.

They're NOT going to just shut down shop. And if they want to produce they will need a market. IF US consumers start cutting of slave/exploitation labor products companies will try to feed the new demand even if it's harder.

We should not justify continuing to feed this beast with "maybe it's better for them this way." It's true that it's not the US's fault if some people are exploiting other people in the world in a way that has nothing to do with us.

How we engage with that or profit from it and how that influences those practices IS our fault.
posted by xarnop at 4:20 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


So buy fair trade labels and from companies that put effort into ethical treatment of workers whenever possible.
posted by xarnop at 4:20 AM on December 9, 2014


Because we, the consumer, want produce that is cheap. We, the consumer, can't afford $6 for a head of lettuce, but that's what it might cost if it was grown here in America, or in Mexico with American-style labor protections.

Cost of labor is a small percent of the cost of produce, I don't think the price would actually have to rise all that much.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:24 AM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


The answer to slavery in the 1860s wasn't, "Buy shirts made from slave-free cotton!"
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:35 AM on December 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores.

Plus ça change:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
posted by elgilito at 5:40 AM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


There is a very simple solution to this problem: let the farmers move to the US. Everyone gets all excited about allowing more skilled immigration, but if you really want to reduce human suffering, open the borders to the "unskilled."
posted by mikewebkist at 5:55 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


so that's one more reason not to eat tomatoes!
posted by ipsative at 7:08 AM on December 9, 2014


I already miss eating avocados, but man.
posted by Kitteh at 7:14 AM on December 9, 2014


The answer to slavery in the 1860s wasn't, "Buy shirts made from slave-free cotton!"

It might not have been the answer, but it was an answer: the free produce movement.
posted by asperity at 5:22 PM on December 9, 2014


let the farmers move to the US

Not to disparage the idea of open borders, but the ability to treat workers terribly isn't the only reason we're growing produce in Mexico. Climate's a factor, and we should be able to choose both fair labor standards and eating something other than root vegetables in winter.
posted by asperity at 5:27 PM on December 9, 2014


@asperity: That's why we have California and Florida, isn't it?
posted by mikewebkist at 6:56 PM on December 9, 2014


There is a very simple solution to this problem: let the farmers move to the US. Everyone gets all excited about allowing more skilled immigration, but if you really want to reduce human suffering, open the borders to the "unskilled."

How would this action impact existing farm laborers in the US, I wonder.
posted by rr at 7:34 PM on December 9, 2014


That's why we have California and Florida, isn't it?

Sure, but there's a limit to their capacity (particularly with California's perpetual and Florida's occasional droughts.) Mexico's even warmer!

I think I'm with Erik Loomis on this one: our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts.
posted by asperity at 7:43 PM on December 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Casting it as a lifestyle choice is a gross simplification that ignores the broader historical context of the development of big ag in the US.

I understand what you're saying, but really this is exactly the kind of objection that just totally and completely does not matter. Do you buy the slave lettuce? Because anything else you might say about it is not relevant to anybody else who is involved. The system that produces slave lettuce reacts to the signals sent by your purchases, since that's all that affects its continued existence. "I don't want this!!!" as you put "this" in your cart, persuades nobody.

Cost of labor is a small percent of the cost of produce, I don't think the price would actually have to rise all that much.

Actually, I agree. Where I used to live (southeast Michigan, the farmer's market prices for produce were actually CHEAPER than the local grocery store. Their meat prices were equivalent or perhaps just slightly higher. To be perfectly honest, I truly don't understand the economics involved. But $20 went a hell of a lot further there than at Walmart.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 11:33 PM on December 9, 2014


so that's one more reason not to eat tomatoes!

I've already been avoiding them due to an early life determination that they are gooey, icky, and taste weird.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:39 PM on December 9, 2014


I mean what I'm saying is I don't know exactly what percentage of the $3.50 per head of lettuce is labor costs, but the fact remains that the system we have employs quasi-slave labor to produce that lettuce for a reason, and as long as we buy its products it will ignore our protests.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 11:53 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pope says stop buying from slaves.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:24 PM on December 10, 2014


Part 2 is up:

Desperate workers on a Mexican mega-farm: 'They treated us like slaves':
In the morning, workers were given a stack of tortillas for the day. Lunch and dinner consisted of watery soup, with occasional servings of beans and rice.

One day, the bosses slaughtered a pig and feasted on it. The next day, the laborers found bone bits and pork scraps in their soup. It would be their only taste of meat for weeks.

Children couldn't stomach the soup. It was too spicy. Milk and eggs — available only at inflated prices from the company store — were out of the question.

One day, a mother confronted a boss. She asked for more tortillas.

Ricardo Martinez, who was standing in the soup line behind the woman, recalled the boss' reaction.

"He told her she would only get a slap in the face," Martinez said. "Then an older man stepped in and said, 'Don't hit her, hit me.' "

Martinez said the boss knocked the man to the ground and beat him. "She just needed more for her kids. What they gave wasn't enough," Martinez said.

People too ill to work were put on the no-pay list. They couldn't get in the soup line unless they swept up around the camp.

Guillermo Martinez, 18, developed a rash and a hacking cough after a few days on the job as a pesticide sprayer. At least four other sprayers said they suffered the same symptoms.

When Martinez asked to see a doctor, a boss shrugged off the request, he said. "He told me, 'You don't need medicine. You're young.' "

Martinez said he wanted to escape but knew he would lose the wages he had earned. Bosses paid the workers in a lump sum at the end of their three-month contracts, a practice barred by Mexican law but common in the farm export sector.

"I thought, 'I've earned 2,500 pesos [about $200], and I don't want to lose it,' " Martinez said. "You keep thinking, 'I've worked so hard to earn it.' "
posted by tonycpsu at 5:46 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


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