US & World

Mexican megafarms supplying US market are rife with labor abuses

At the end of the day, Roma tomatoes are ready for transport in Cristo Rey in the state of Sinaloa. Half the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico.
At the end of the day, Roma tomatoes are ready for transport in Cristo Rey in the state of Sinaloa. Half the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico.
Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

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"Product of Mexico" — it's a label you see on fruit and vegetable stickers in supermarkets across the U.S.

It's also the name of an investigative series appearing this week in the Los Angeles Times.

Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep spoke to reporter Richard Marosi about his 18-month investigation in Mexico. Wednesday's story in the series follows Ricardo Martinez, a farmworker who tried, unsuccessfully, to leave a labor camp.

According to Marosi, the farmworkers are "the invisible people of Mexico, the poorest, the most discriminated." That's what makes them so vulnerable to abuse in farm labor camps.

The camps are in remote regions of west and northwest Mexico, and are attached to the megafarms that produce millions of pounds of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables, much of them bound for the U.S.

"They live in rooms 6-by-8 generally, and shedlike housing, sometimes no furniture. They sleep on scraps of cardboard," Marosi says.

The workers are forced to buy food from the company stores, where the prices are heavily inflated. Even making $8 to $12 a day, which is more than they might make at home, they can't keep up with the high costs.

"A lot of these places, they illegally withhold the wages of the workers; they're there on three-month contracts, they're not paid until the end," he says. That means they don't even have the money to catch a bus and escape the farm.

Marosi says a lot of the blame lies with firms that project an image of social responsibility or tote their many badges of certifications from labor groups. In reality, they are not actually enforcing their standards.

"I went and looked at some of the places with some of the better reputations, and I found appalling conditions at many of them," including one where people were actually being held captive, he says.

There are other problems, too: "Some of these camps are so remote that people, even if they want to go check the conditions, don't know where they are. So it's up to the agribusiness owners to tell them, and sometimes they don't," explains Marosi.

There are American exporters and representatives of retailers like Wal-Mart in Mexico, he says, but they're looking out for food safety, not the conditions of the laborers.

For example, the farms Marosi saw have very advanced irrigation canals to grow high-quality tomatoes and cucumbers. But the labor force has no water to shower with when they go home.

The only way these conditions may change is if the U.S. puts pressure on the retailers who buy from the Mexican megafarms, says Marosi.

"If there's consumer pressure," he says, "retailers at that point can act to bring in higher, third-party, independent auditors to make sure that the [retailers'] requirements of social responsibility guidelines are being met."

Following Marosi's investigation, some companies have reported that they've instituted corrective action plans or ceased operations with unsafe megafarms. However, even a year after one farm was raided for its poor worker conditions, it still produced 700 million pounds of tomatoes.

The problem isn't limited to big-box retailers, either — even farmers markets can import from Mexico, as Marosi explains: "A lot of the farmers market is sourced from regional wholesalers or regional produce markets, and much of that comes from Mexico."

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