They produce nearly half the fruit and vegetables eaten every year in the United States, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Mexican farm workers, the invisible small hands of the food supply chain, usually work in extremely precarious conditions: very often they have no trade union representation or collective agreements, they are rarely paid more than US$13 US a day, for ten hours of back-breaking work in the cucumber, tomato or strawberry fields.
Lorenzo Rodriquez has been fighting to change this for the last three years. Originally from Ouaxaca state in southern Mexico, this indigenous agricultural worker went at the age of 15 to work in the north of the country, in the mega-farms in the San Quintin valley that supply the big American supermarkets.
In spring 2015 his life changed dramatically when he decided to join an unprecedented strike movement which caused uproar in Baja California for two weeks.
“After bitter negotiations with the employers, we succeeded in raising average pay from about 120 pesos (US$6) to 150 pesos (US$7.50), or even 180 pesos (US$8.90) in some cases, depending on the size of the company,” explains the young man, on the fringes of an international conference on a fair food supply chain organised in mid-October by theUniversity of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Labor Center.
“Aside from the question of pay, the most important step forward for us was the creation of our own independent trade union, the Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democrático de Jornaleros Agrícolas (SINDJA), which was literally born out of this strike movement,” explains Rodriguez, who is now the general secretary of the organisation.
Before SINDJA was created and officially recognised by the Mexican government in May 2015, it would have been virtually impossible for the thousands of striking day labourers in Baja California to get their voice heard at the negotiating table. The main problem was the existence of the so-called ‘ghost’ unions who work hand-in-hand with the employers, the big agricultural companies, to nip any worker unrest in the bud.
“At the beginning of the strike, when we were trying to negotiate with the bosses, these corrupt fake unions emerged to take over the discussions. I am convinced they were sent by our employers in order to break the strike movement. They immediately accepted a 15 per cent pay rise, when we wanted to go much further,” explains Rodriguez. “It was then that we realised that we had to create our own independent union, legally recognised by the [Mexican] state, so that we could take back control.”
SINDJA has grown since its creation in Baja California in 2015. It is now active in several other Mexican states such as Sonora and Sinaloa (north). But in a country like Mexico which makes little effort to apply labour laws, this young independent union sometimes feels powerless.
“Since SINDJA was created, our main task has been to mobilise workers to get them to under-stand that they have rights. But we still find it very difficult to get some companies to sign collective agreements that guarantee the safety of the workers and decent levels of pay,” explains Abelina Ramirez, SINDJA secretary for gender equality, who accompanied Rodriguez to Los Angeles for the conference.
Forming alliances on both sides of the border
California is the first stage of a journey along the West Coast of the US by the two Mexican union leaders this autumn. Their aim is to meet as many trade union leaders there as possible to learn from their successful organising and collective bargaining strategies. “The reason we could spread our influence across Mexico,” beyond Baja California, “is the alliances we forged throughout the country with other groups. Now we are here in the US, our aim is to do the same thing with American organisations in the farming industry,” says Rodriguez.
“What we have realised is that if we want to tackle the global supply chains effectively and the very low wages they impose on farm workers, it is more important than ever for us to organise beyond our country’s borders,” adds Art Pulaski, general secretary of the California Labor Federation.
The strawberry pickers of Baja California, Mexico, very often work for the same transnational companies as the Hispanic workers on America’s West Coast, such as the agri-giant Driscoll’s, which operates on both sides of the Mexico-US border, producing one-third of all red fruit consumed in the US. By forming alliances and going on strike, the Californian and Mexican workers technically have the ability to paralyse a whole swathe of the Pacific Coast’s farming operations.
After Los Angeles, SINDJA visited Burlington in Washington State (on the north of the West Coast) where they met representatives of the organisation Familias Unidas por la Justicia(United Families for Justice) so that they could speak to them and exchange good practices. The union was created in 2013 after blueberry pickers decided to stop work to protest at the dismissal of one of their colleagues who had asked for a pay rise. After four years of strikes and calls for boycotts, the workers won a major victory: a contract guaranteeing them a wage of US$15 an hour.
Mobilising the US consumer
Some forms of pressure that have been effective on the US market, however, are not guaranteed to succeed when used in Mexico. Greg Asbed, co-founder of the human rights organisation the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), in Florida, is recognised for his pioneering action in fighting against the exploitation of farm workers. With the CIW, this winner of the prestigious MacArthur prize, has helped bring numerous slavery cases to the US courts, leading to the sentencing of the guilty companies.
It would be difficult however to get the same results in Mexico “where civil society is in crisis and is rotten through and through with corruption and violence,” notes Asbed. “There is such an overriding sense of impunity that those responsible for the violence don’t even feel they have to be held accountable when it comes to cases of human rights violations.”
Yet the CIW co-founder does believe there is a solution, and it lies in the hands of the consumer. “Each time a US citizen eats a fruit or vegetable imported from Mexico, there is a chance it was picked by a child,” he says.
“The big US supermarkets are the Mexican farming industry’s biggest clients. The consumer can put pressure on the supermarkets by threatening to boycott them if they do not require their producers to pay fair wages and ensure decent working conditions for all workers.”
This is precisely the strategy that is at the heart of the Fair Food Programme (FFP)launched by Asbed and his Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida in 2011. Praised by the UN as an extremely promising model, the FFP aims to set up partnerships with the giant supermarkets and fast food outlets such as Subway and Burger King, to ensure that their supply chains are genuinely equitable.
Workers in the programme are able to report violations without fear of reprisal (thanks, notably, to the transmission of a video stream in real time to a monitoring body). Detailed audits are also carried out at the workplace. The FFP was developed in Florida in partnership with consumers who helped exert pressure on the big US supermarkets and was then rolled out to other US states (such as Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey and Vermont).
Although a series of articles appeared in the American press in 2015 aimed at raising public awareness of the fate of farmworkers in San Quintin, the conditions faced by Mexican workers still does not do much to mobilise US consumers. Asbed is still confident, however. “We know at least that we have found a cure for this cancer. Now what we have to do is to convince the public to take action to support those who produce most of the food that we have on our plates every day.”