Farm Worker Conditions In Mexico Are Not Much Worse Than In The U.S.

Watch how researchers are working to make agricultural communities safer for children and families in this four-minute California Matters with Mark Bittman video.

The L.A. Times has been running a series titled "Product of Mexico." The investigative pieces, all written by Richard Marosi, detail the lives and hardships of laborers toiling on Mexican mega-farms, planting and picking produce that ends up on this side of the border. The stories are upsetting, and the exploitation of the workers is clear. What's happening down in Mexico is not pretty at all.

But one message that shouldn't be taken away from the series is that the exploitation of farm workers is something that happens "down there" or "not in my backyard." In fact, a lot of the same problems happen to farm workers right here at home.

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"Just as people ought to be paying attention to the conditions in which the products in Mexico are being created, they should be paying attention to domestic products," said Peter O'Driscoll, project director of the Equitable Food Initiative, an organization that, among other things, attempts to make sure farm workers are fairly compensated for their labor. "We still have a long way to go in making sure the agricultural force in this country is treated fairly."

One of the biggest areas of concern is a simple lack of awareness: the average consumer doesn't know what's going on with the American farm worker. "There's some history here," said O'Driscoll. "If you look at the New Deal and the National Labor Relations Act, farm workers were specifically excluded from basic worker protections."

Despite the NLRA being signed in 1935, it wasn't until 1966 when a coalition of farm workers, under leaders like Cesar Chavez, forced the government to give them a minimum wage. And it wasn't until 1983 that the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act was signed, setting standards for transportation, housing, payment of wages, and workplace conditions. That neglect has a lot to do with how employers see the nature of the job.

"The seasonality of agriculture means that typically employers don't invest in them. Workers are seen as dispensable rather than valued partners, particularly in crops that have short harvesting and growing seasons. The tendency is to get people in and get them out, and as long as you get your crop in, that's where your obligation ends."

There has been advancement in terms of regulations on the books. Besides the hourly wage requirements and labor standards, there are regulations regarding sun exposure and how many pesticides they're allowed to be near. But none of that matters if there isn't ample enforcement.

"The state and federal authorities have limited enforcement budgets," said O'Driscoll. "There are still gaps in the regulatory enforcement, and so ultimately there are going to be limits on the regulation."

This is particularly troubling in California, a state with thousands of farms within its borders. The simple fact is that making sure all of the farms are following the rules is an act of futility. And that doesn't only matter to the workers toiling in the farms. If workers are overworked and underpaid, that leads to more accidents, wider neglect, and more food contamination.

"Our goal is to link the food safety issue to the worker protection issue," said O'Driscoll. "And remind companies they can actually do better by investing in their work force."

It's also important to keep in mind that national borders are increasingly meaningless in the new global marketplace. "The kinds of conditions [in Mexico] have been around for awhile, but they're increasingly relevant because of the trend towards increasing proportions of imports in the U.S. food supply," said O'Driscoll. The reason for that increase has to do with American demand for year-round fresh produce, which can't be grown in the States. Focusing on only buying seasonal produce, then, is a good start for consumers looking to end exploitative practices.

As far as what else the consumer can do now, O'Driscoll doesn't have too many easy solutions. He advises paying attention to product labels, including the Fair Trade one.

But that seems to be as far as it goes.

"There is a preponderance of labels focusing on environmental factors," he said. "But there's a limited supply of labels that speak specifically to fair working conditions."

To read about a California farm's solution-in-progress, read One Winery's Labor Solution: Year-Round Employment And Their Own Blend.

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