Mexican farmworkers, and their children, are treated more like tools than people as they slave away in the hot sun harvesting tomatoes, eggplants, chile peppers, and other produce items bound for US supermarkets and restaurants. In a December 2014 expose, the LA Times documented the abysmal conditions under which Mexican farmworkers labor. Workers are promised good wages and free room and board, but in reality they are paid very little. Often their pay is withheld illegally until the end of their three-month contract, and in the meantime they have racked up debts at the over-priced company stores to pay for necessities. Workers live in cramped and filthy camps, sometimes infested with bedbugs or rats. Workers and their children, even infants, spend long days in the hot sun, often without access to drinking water. Adults and children are malnourished, sometimes surviving on just tortillas and watery soup. These workers are migrants, on the move from one harvesting region to the next, which means children are not able to be in school, creating an endless chain of poverty and hardship.
The US companies importing this produce, the farms, the labor camps, and the labor brokers who recruit workers from other regions to the farms all shirk responsibility, denying the problem or pointing the finger at another actor.
For produce from Mexico, you can seek products that bear the Fair Trade label, which ensures certain labor standards are met and that the working conditions on the farms are inspected on an annual basis by a third-party.
Additionally, you can seek tomatoes from companies that have signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Campaign. The experience of Mexican farmworkers is similar to what laborers have faced for years in Florida’s tomato fields . However, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has had some success in getting major brands to pay 1 penny more per pound of tomatoes they buy to bolster the farmworkers’ poverty-level wages, including Whole Foods, Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Burger King.
If you enjoy tomatoes, eggplants, chile peppers, or products containing these ingredients, such as salsa from Mexico, you have an important role to play. US brands that import produce from Mexico need to know their consumers care about the conditions under which their favorite products are grown. Call the hotlines of your favorite restaurant and grocery chains asking questions and demanding fair treatment for workers.
On behalf of US tomato pickers, you can support the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s latest campaigns targeting Wendy’s and Publix grocery stores.