On January 21, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the beginning of a national program called “Mexico with Decent Work” (México con Trabajo Digno), with the stated mission to “promote the respect, protection and guarantee of human rights for workers in Mexico, as well as to ensure decent work is fully in force.” However, only two months later, as Secretary of Labor Alfonso Navarrete boasted that the program was rescuing people working practically in slave conditions, thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley in the Northeastern state of Baja California went on strike, demanding higher wages and better working conditions from the government and multinational corporations.
Negotiations have yet to move forward. The Mexican government seems unable to respond, perhaps because the organized farmworkers are challenging an alliance between multinational corporations, public officials who also have business in the valley, and corporate unionism– a system that protects the interests of employers.
San Quintín Valley is one of Mexico’s largest export regions, employing tens of thousands of farmworkers, many of them first or second generation indigenous migrants [PDF] originally from Southern Mexico. Each year the region generates more than six billion pesos (about $410 million) worth of agricultural products. It is estimated that there are 80 thousand farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley, and yet in the municipality of Ensenada, which encompasses all of San Quintín, there are less than 24 thousand farm workers registered with the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS). The most important good produced is strawberries, but only a small portion of these are consumed in Mexico. Most are exported to the U.S. market to be sold by fast food chains, or in supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Safeway, or Whole Foods. Around 84 percent of U.S. imports of fresh strawberries come from Mexico, and Baja California leads Mexico’s production and export of strawberries.
Luis Hernández Navarro, Mexican journalist and coordinator of the opinion section of La Jornada, referred to the working conditions this way:
San Quintín’s day farmworkers labour in humiliating conditions on farms that grow produce for export: tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries. In exchange for starvation wages, they work up to 14- hour days without a weekly day of rest, let alone holidays or social security. Foremen sexually abuse the women, and they are forced to take their children to the premises to perform work.
… Many [workers] are indigenous migrants from Oaxaca (Mixtec and Triqui), Guerrero, Puebla and Veracruz, who have made San Quintín into another of their communities. Three generations of Oaxacalifornianos live there. They suffer constant police harassment. They rely on a single hospital [run by the] Mexican Social Security Institute [IMSS].
The strike launched by the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice (AONEMJS) seeks a wage increase from $8.00 to $13.50 per day. The workers also demand their employers follow both their obligations to pay into Mexico’s social security and health insurance system, and the labor laws. The workers’ alliance also demands an end to sexual harassment in the fields and revocation of contracts with unions affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
As of today, the Mexican government has shown no willingness to engage in any sort of dialogue. First the Baja California government responded with violence, but this failed to break the strike. Then there was a brief period of negotiations with local government representatives that also failed when the officials offered only a 15 percent pay increase, far short of meeting the demands presented by workers.
Although this conflict has received some coverage in the U.S. due to the efforts of the AFL-CIO and the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB), too little has been said about the responsibility of BerryMex, “one of Driscoll’s largest suppliers in the region” according to Rachel Luban from In These Times. Since the conflict began, BerryMex has published six press releases evading responsibility and insisting that they provide good working conditions for their workers. For example:
BerryMex has a long and established history of listening to worker concerns and taking action to provide them with the most comprehensive benefits, attractive earning capacity, and a healthy, safe and productive working environment.
BerryMex provides comprehensive harvest employment opportunities including:
-Offering an average earning opportunity of between $5.00 - $9.00 (USD) per hour, ($75.00 mxp - $135,00 mxp) -and up to $10.00 (USD) ($150.00 mxp) per hour for high performers, resulting in the average weekly earnings of $3 600.00 pesos or $240.00 (USD) to 7,200.00 pesos or $480.00 (USD).
-This is approximately 8x the minimum federal wage and as much as 16x for high performers.
Driscoll's, in a statement last week, said BerryMex workers can earn $5 to $9 an hour.
That amount is inaccurate, farmworker leaders and several current and former BerryMex workers said. They say that under optimal conditions workers earn no more than $3 an hour, and that after peak harvest periods, pay drops to about half that amount.
One grower from the region, DeWayne Hafen, also questioned the BerryMex wage figures. Most pickers fill about 30 boxes a day during peak harvest periods, earning about $3.50 an hour, he said. The $9 figure, he said, isn’t possible.
On April 4, the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project and FIOB gathered outside Driscoll’s facilities in Oxnard, California in order to show the responsibility that this multinational has in the conflict in San Quintín. FIOB spokesperson Gaspar Rivera told a reporter for La Jornada that BerryMex was one of the companies that had negotiated a wage increase of 15 percent with the corporate unions, ignoring petitions made by the Alliance:
[Rivera] said that the “Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), signed a “security contract” with the agro-businesses of San Quintín, including Driscoll’s company, accepting a wage increase of 15 percent, "on the backs of 80,000 workers and the Alliance," which represented the workers in the negotiations.
BerryMex not only appears to be dishonest in saying that their employees get paid between $5 and $8 per hour, it also—along with other companies—takes advantage of the corporate union structure known as “sindicatos charros” in Mexico, in order to evade responsibility. Historically linked to the PRI, the CROC, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, and the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers, who are all involved in the recruitment of farmworkers in San Quintín and function as tools for employers to prevent the free association of workers, and are now being used by companies like Driscoll’s and BerryMex against the AONEMJS.
On Friday, May 9, federal authorities broke the agreement they had made to continue participating in negotiations. The undersecretary of the Mexican government, Luis Miranda, was expected to travel to San Quintín to meet with members of the AONEMJS, but he did not appear. The next day, during a “Global Action for San Quintín,” police violently broke up a protest of the AONEMJS outside the Rancho Seco company. As documented in La Jornada de Baja California, workers report being attacked:
Once he realized the situation, the owner of the farm called the police, who arrived at around 5:00 in the morning and charged at the day laborers who advocated for continuing the strike. Some of them ran towards their homes and were pursued by the police, who entered the homes and hit women and children even as they slept.
When BerryMex issued their first press release on the labor dispute, on March 21, it read, in part: “we strongly condemn the violence and looting from outside third parties which has negatively impacted families and small businesses across the region.” Why doesn’t BerryMex now condemn this police violence against farm workers which has resulted in 70 people injured, seven of them seriously? Why doesn’t BerryMex call for dialogue between the government and the AONEMJS?
This is not the first time that Driscoll’s has tried to evade its responsibilities to the workers who harvest its products; “its carefully crafted image obscures a record of unfair labor practices,” as Marosi reports. Even today, as San Quintín workers strike, farmworkers at the Sakuma Berry Farm in Burlington, Washington—an important supplier of Driscoll’s—have called for a boycott in order to pressure the firm to ensure that farmworkers get better wages, housing and working conditions. The farmworkers’ union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), said, “Almost every year, there has been a labor dispute, some end in firing and evictions, while others have been full on work stoppages with only one in 2004, resulting in minor temporary concessions.” Farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farms are calling for an end to what they describe “as wage theft, unfair piece rate agreements and verbal abuse during working hours,” as Leon Kaye wrote in Triple Pundit.
In San Quintín, the Alliance demonstrated its willingness to negotiate by lowering its request for a salary increase from $20 to $13 per day. However, the Mexican government has not reciprocated, proving that it is responsive only to the immediate interests of businesses. If Driscoll’s does not change its attitude toward the conflict in San Quintín, it will be showing that its growth is based on the insecurity and impoverishment of its workers. It would be proof that the company does not respect labor rights, and it would be a demonstration that it finds the corporate structure of Mexican unions extremely useful for its interests. Driscoll’s should take negotiations with the Alliance more seriously.
 The Los Angeles Times notes: “About one-quarter of the berries Driscoll’s gets from Baja come from growers other than BerryMex. Driscoll's declined to provide the names of the other suppliers, which were described as small, locally owned farms.”
Mateo Crossa is an International Program Intern with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.