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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Grapes of Wrath, 2015: Mexico’s slave labor problem

After Mexican officials freed 200 indigenous Rarámuri working in slave-like conditions in Baja California Sur earlier this month, more abuses have come to light. Just this week, forty-nine indigenous Mixtecs were found working in similar conditions in a Colima cucumber field, on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Work camp in Baja Sur

Since the first story broke, 452 people in Mexico have been rescued from what amounted to indentured servitude. Many of the victims are indigenous, and working far from home.  

The Rarámuri found in Baja California Sur, for example, hailed from the small town of Creel, Chuhuahua. They were then supposedly sent to Comondú by a company called Corporativo El Cerezo Sociedad Agrícola. The head offices for this company don’t actually exist: the address is simply a piece of land, a former hacienda owned by former president Vicente Fox and his two brothers.

The business practice follows traditional models of indentured servitude. The farm laborers were paid 200 pesos a week as a “loan”, even though the minimum wage in Baja Sur, a “Zone-A” region in Mexico, is 67.29 Mexican pesos a day. Workers were then expected to buy necessities back from the company, ensuring that they would be kept in ruinous poverty and forced to keep on working.

The list of infractions found by Mexican investigators totaled 113, and ranged from lack of access to clean drinking water to unsafe working conditions and exposure to harmful fungicides and pesticides.

Among the freed workers, 167 had not been registered for social security and were therefore not eligible for benefits. Thirteen minors were also found in the work camps.

The Mexican government has been quick to blame organized crime for the oppressive conditions, particularly with regard to recruitment of day laborers, though it appears that these were legitimate businesses, with all the produce flowing legally to market. It is unclear how much, if any, was exported to the United States or elsewhere.

To its credit, the government has been stepping up assessments and inspections. But the numbers betray the magnitude of the problem:  16,159 businesses have been fined about 140 million pesos (US $9.3 million), with 12 work sites receiving suspensions.

The Mexican government has also said that it is investigating infractions in Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Guerrero.

There has been some resistance on the part of farmworkers. Recently, the Transpeninsular Highway was shut down in Baja California by laborers demanding better working conditions and wages. They were met by the army and state police with volleys of tear gas. All told, 236 protesters were detained. Some businesses were looted, and some of the demonstrators were charged with rioting, robbery, and damage to property.

Some farmworkers have claimed that there were “agent provocateurs” in their midst, and that the illegal activity was conducted by outsiders, but that has not been confirmed.

Compared to the indentured workers, these laborers are doing fairly well: they make between 120-130 pesos (about US$ 8.60) for an eight hour shift, though that often extends to 12 hours. They are asking for 300 pesos (US$ 20) per eight hour shift, Sundays (or any seventh day) off, voluntary and properly remunerated overtime, and investigations into accusations of sexual assault against female workers.

These workers are acting in solidarity with the indigenous indentured laborers, and are asking that these conditions be accepted for all. The challenge for indigenous laborers is that Spanish might be their second language, and they are far from home. Already suffering discrimination within Mexico, and often with little education, these individuals are ill-equipped to advocate for themselves, and are understandably suspicious of government officials. 

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

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