The farmer archetype rides a tractor across a bucolic field harvesting a bounty, but this is simply not the reality of the work that is done for much of the produce that we eat. Seventy-five to eight-five percent of fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand and the people who harvest are all too often mistreated and abused. Much of that labor increasingly happens in Mexico. Richard Marois and Don Bartletti of the LA Times spent 18 months visiting mega-farm labor camps across Mexico uncovering the conditions in which these workers live. Their four-part series on their work began running this week.
Through compelling photography, stunningly poignant videos and the stories of day laborers, Marois and Barletti detail the squalid conditions in which these workers are forced to live. It doesn’t top there: wages are withheld illegally by camp bosses, and the resulting debt and a de facto indentured servitude into which these workers sink result in jail-like systems used to keep the workers in the camps. Quoting a worker:
They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don't take care of us," said Japolina Jaimez, a field hand at Rene Produce, a grower of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. "Look at how we live."
He pointed to co-workers and their children, bathing in an irrigation canal because the camp's showers had no water that day.
Marois and Bartletti focus primarily on tomatoes, pointing out that over half the tomatoes we eat in the U.S. come from Mexico. The pair interviewed U.S. based companies that buy tomatoes from Mexican suppliers including Wal-Mart, Subway, Safeway and Whole Foods. Quotes from these companies vary from defensive to earnest concern, but it is hard to believe that these chains have not been aware of the conditions that Marois and Bartletti picture as so rampant.
Due in no small part to the money and power that the food suppliers (and corporations that pay them) wield over the Mexican government (and our own), Marois and Bartletti point out that there is little the Mexican government can do at this point to stop this abuse:
Federal labor inspectors are clear on the law but said they were largely powerless to crack down on deep-pocketed growers, who can stymie enforcement with endless appeals.
"They just laugh at us," said Armando Guzman, a senior official with Mexico's federal Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare. "They mock authority and mock the letter of the law."
This is an eye opening piece that upholds the importance of shopping locally and knowing your farmer. Getting this information out into the world is an important step to raising awareness and making changes for those people who are responsible for the food we eat.
IMAGES: via LATimes
Labor: US Fruits and Vegetables via migration.ucdavis.edu
Read all articles by Juniper Briggs