Warning: This Tomato May Contain Blood, Sweat, And Tears

by Dish Staff

Reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti spent a year and a half investigating the awful conditions under which farm workers in Mexico labor to bring fresh produce to the American market. The first installment of their massive four-part exposé in the LA Times outlines the numerous human rights violations they discovered and calls out major US retail and restaurant chains, including Walmart and Subway, for buying produce from the offending farms:

At the mega-farms that supply major American retailers, child labor has been largely eradicated. But on many small and mid-sized farms, children still work the fields, picking chiles, tomatillos and other produce, some of which makes its way to the U.S. through middlemen. About 100,000 children younger than 14 pick crops for pay, according to the Mexican government’s most recent estimate. During The Times’ 18-month investigation, a reporter and a photographer traveled across nine Mexican states, observing conditions at farm labor camps and interviewing hundreds of workers. At half the 30 camps they visited, laborers were in effect prevented from leaving because their wages were being withheld or they owed money to the company store, or both. …

The practice of withholding wages, although barred by Mexican law, persists, especially for workers recruited from indigenous areas, according to government officials and a 2010 report by the federal Secretariat of Social Development. These laborers typically work under three-month contracts and are not paid until the end. The law says they must be paid weekly. The Times visited five big export farms where wages were being withheld. Each employed hundreds of workers. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, bought produce directly or through middlemen from at least three of those farms, The Times found.

Part 2 focuses on one particularly Dickensian labor camp, where those too sick to work were reportedly denied food and medical care, and where asking for a few extra tortillas for her children could earn a worker a beating. Tom Philpott stresses how heavily Americans rely on Mexican farms for our cheap and abundant fruits and veggies:

The US now imports nearly a third of the fruit and vegetables we consume, and Mexico accounts for 36 percent of that foreign-grown cornucopia, far more than any other country. And we’re only growing more reliant on our southern neighbor—imports of Mexico-grown fresh produce have increased by an average of 11 percent per year between 2001 and 2011, the USDA reports, and now amount to around $8 billion. The Times investigations demonstrates, with an accumulation of detail that can’t be denied or ignored, that our easy bounty bobs on a sea of misery and exploitation.

These revelations, Erik Loomis argues, strengthen the case for an international legal framework to hold American companies accountable for doing business with human rights abusers:

As I argue in Out of Sight, these conditions are precisely why central to our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts. Anything else will keep workers in these conditions. If Subway wants to use tomatoes grown in Mexico, fine. But those tomatoes have to be produced in conditions that stand up to a basic test of human rights. If wages are stolen, workers threatened, bathing facilities not provided, etc., then workers should have the right to sue for recompense in American courts. Subway, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc., must be held legally responsible for the conditions of work when people labor in growing food for them to sell. This has to be a legal framework. Mass movements are useful only in the short term because we will move on to the next issue.