Thanks to the ILR International Travel Grant Program, I travelled to the San Quintín Valley in Baja California, Mexico this winter to learn from the workers, employers, state and community actors about employment relations in agribusiness. The insights that they shared will contribute to my dissertation project, an assessment of the labor regimes in global agribusiness. In particular, I am exploring the strategies of workers and employers in the production and sales nodes of the global strawberry industry. The largest sources of strawberries for the North American market are the United States and Mexico, and for European markets, Spain. The first of three planned field visits was to San Quintín.
As one descends the mountains into the San Quintin Valley, a 4-hour drive south of San Diego, shimmering white hoophouses extend to the horizon, like a neon sign informing you that here is export agribusiness. Capitalizing on its proximity to the United States produce market, the government of Mexico has supported investors to develop the San Quintín Valley as an agro-export hub. The Mexican government antagonized indigenous communities in southern states - leading masses to migrate for livelihoods, constructed the trans-peninsular highway to connect Baja California to U.S. markets, privatized land and water management, and negotiated export access, most significantly to the United States and increasingly China. In the last thirty years, the primary export crop has shifted from tomatoes to strawberries, although the largest companies grow multiple crops to maintain year-round production. Whether as manager or worker, the vast majority of people work in agribusiness and either migrated for the work or are at most the third generation of their family living in the Valley. Through interviews and observation, a picture emerged of what it means to work in the fields to produce the strawberries sold across North America, and to manage this production process.
In a poignant reflection on the life of agribusiness workers in San Quintín, a worker concluded, “It seems to me that this country was designed to never stop producing cheap labor.” Indeed, fitting patterns in agribusiness and neoliberal economic growth elsewhere, workers have not benefited with decent livelihoods in the San Quintín Valley. Underdevelopment of home states, primarily Oaxaca and Guerrero, led many to leave their indigenous communities there to become field workers in the Valley. Now, weekly earnings at a leading strawberry production company can rise to 4,800 pesos ($198) during the 8-10 weeks of peak strawberry harvest, and dip to 1,320 pesos ($54) for most of the rest of the year, while weekly spending on food, gas for cooking, and electricity is around 1,453 pesos ($60). These are conservative estimates, e.g. assuming a 6-day workweek, although heavy rains washed out 6 workdays during the seven weeks of my visit, each of those considered unseasonable rains. When I asked, workers wondered out loud what legally required benefits are, reflecting the spotty enforcement of Mexican laws requiring paid vacation, vacation bonus pay, end-of-year bonus, and a bonus based on profits to all working more than 45 weeks. The pain and exhaustion endured picking strawberries (to which I attest from a single day in the fields) puts additional income-earning activities into perspective as nothing less than super-human feats.
In addition to the intense physicality of field work, another occupational health concern in strawberry production is exposure to agrochemicals. While many companies increasingly produce organic berries to fetch a better price, conventional strawberry production remains a chemical-intensive crop – indicated in San Quintín by the regular sight of spraying, lingering aroma, and high incidence of respiratory infections. Yet community leaders reported that they had not been able to convince local hospitals to record indicators of the health impacts associated with agrochemical exposure. In fact, workers seeking medical attention often find that their employer had not consistently registered them in the National Social Security Institute. Without registration, the system designed to provide universal healthcare as well as retirement income often fails workers. Field workers approaching elderly age quickly learn that their decades of work translated into weeks registered in the social security system. Many current workers began fieldwork as children, and while child labor no longer remains the norm, for many the dream of their children going to university or otherwise obtaining a livelihood out of the fields remains faint.
There are more than 100 neighborhoods in the San Quintín Valley, and with expansive agribusiness fields between them, most workers preferred to meet me at their homes. There is no public transportation, and while many have vehicles, fuel often falls outside household budgets. The typical living situation is meager. The workers who have just emigrated for work often begin life in San Quintín by constructing a room with cardboard walls, plastic sheeting as a roof, and a dirt floor. Over time, more workers have built wooden and concrete houses with lamina roofs. Most workers’ houses that I visited had one or two rooms and no indoor plumbing. Depending on the neighborhood, untreated water is available sporadically, so bottled water must be purchased for consumption. Roads are unpaved, and thus flood whenever it rains. Refuse removal is nonexistent or irregular, leading some residents to dump or burn garbage. Over the decades, workers have organized in their communities and demanded government support for improved infrastructure. Their efforts are evident, e.g. improved water systems delivering piped water in certain neighborhoods, paved streets in others, the occasional stretch of working streetlights, and a soccer field and basketball court in one particularly well-organized neighborhood.
One of the main workers collectives organizing to improve livelihoods in San Quintín is the Independent National Democratic Union of Agricultural Workers (SINDJA). SINDJA emerged out of the largest strike by agricultural workers in Mexico’s history. In 2015, workers struck and occupied the highway, halting production and sales for San Quintín agribusinesses. Workers joined the strike, some simply fed up with low wages and others organized by the Alliance of National, State, and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice. The Alliance leaders had engaged workers in their communities for years, received no response from the government to their petitions for support to improve employment and living conditions, and then led the strike. Over months, negotiations between the Alliance, government, and employers resulted in raised wage rates, more workers registered in the social security system, and the legal recognition of SINDJA.
Since 2015, SINDJA has taken up the tough challenges of organizing workers short on time, energy and resources, displacing the company-protection unions that remain at most agribusinesses, and eventually negotiating meaningful contracts. However, observing SINDJA’s leadership in the wee morning or late evening hours around their and their peers’ workdays, and hearing them articulate a vision for the future that echoed aspirations shared by interviewed workers, they just may well lead the establishment of new employment relations in the region’s agribusiness sector. Cobbling together pesos for gas, they skip workdays and thus already scant income to represent workers to resolve disputes – often illegal dismissals or low wages, organize workshops in workers’ homes to educate them of their rights, distribute know-your-rights brochures, engage workers in their communities, broadcast information via social media. In short, SINDJA is traveling the arduous path towards decent work with purpose and dignity.
Eradicating gender discrimination is one of the struggles in which SINDJA and others are contending. It cannot be understated that for women fieldworkers, the workload is mind-boggling. Women workers in San Quintin typically arise around 4am to prepare breakfast and lunch for themselves, their partner and children before heading to work. Most workers commute via repurposed old school buses, boarding them between 5 and 6 to arrive at the fields and begin work at 6:30 or 7am. If picking strawberries – for production, both edible and rotten berries must be picked, although many employers pay less for the equally grueling work of cleaning the fields of the rotten fruit. The workday pauses at midday for lunch – when most workers eat the tacos they brought before quickly returning to pick as much as possible. Workers arrive home anywhere from 2 and 8 in the afternoon, when again women workers take up seemingly endless domestic labor.
Throughout the San Quintin Valley, women workers are, nevertheless, chipping away at gender-based discrimination. Two of the groups that I met are the NGOs Women United in Defense of Indigenous Farmworkers (MUDJI) and Alliance of Women of Diverse Colors (AMDC). For the last three years, the women worker founders of MUDJI, who are also SINDJA members, have organized women in communities across the San Quintin Valley. Often in workers’ homes, they facilitate workshops to increase awareness of women workers’ legal rights and how to exercise them. In parallel to this work, the AMDC fights gender-based violence, with a network of first responders who intervene to stop domestic violence, organizes economic livelihood opportunities such as home-based artisan clothes making, and is urging agribusinesses to reduce discrimination by opening up more jobs to women.
Talking to agribusiness owners, it was clear that some empathized with workers’ plight personally, even while all asserted their legal compliance and pointed to the government as the responsible actor for harsh conditions. For example, one employer pointed out that the lack of infrastructure and attendant high costs for water, transportation, food, etc. in San Quintín means that workers’ purchasing power is lower than in cities with better services. Furthermore, recently passed laws have encouraged companies to contribute to society, which in San Quintín has meant some are using their trucks and personnel to remove refuse and grate dirt roads. Since the 2015 strike, many employers raised wages – although some raised workloads commensurately, some registered their workers in the social security system, and a couple began to open up jobs to women that were previously reserved for men – driving buses and tractors and fore(wo)men positions. The largest companies have obtained certifications, most commonly Fair Trade USA, Equitable Food Initiative, and Rainforest Alliance – required by some food retailers, and some increased certified organic production – again per retailers’ demands. Most workers reported no knowledge whatsoever of the certifications, although one worker explained that the EFI committee at their workplace had increased hygienic practices to protect the strawberries.
Agribusiness managers in San Quintín, as production links in the North American strawberry industry, depend primarily on U.S.-based buyers. Those with decades in the business noted that profit margins had shrunk as more producers began to sell strawberries. Many commercialize their product through brands, primarily Driscoll’s, then Andrew and Williamson. The brands sell to food retailers – Walmart, Costco, Kroger, terminal markets that supply restaurants, and food-service companies. Most producers in San Quintín belong to the Agricultural Council of Baja California, which supports them, for example with the export processes. A smaller producer that does not participate in the business association reported volatility in terms of sales, including prices that fall below production costs.
So what does one learn in the San Quintín Valley, the production end of a global supply chain? For one, workers endure regular violations of their labor and human rights, because they have no other options to feed their families, and many are organizing to collectively improve employment and living conditions. Employers are members of the same communities as workers, and while enjoying substantially higher quality of life, share some interests in improving those communities. Particularly in this agricultural hub, where work is year-round and companies have market access, collective bargaining offers clear opportunities. Clearly, workers stand to benefit from an independent union such as SINDJA representing them in negotiating the terms of their employment. Employers, too, could benefit, by avoiding disruptions such as the strike of 2015 and by collaborating with workers to pressure the government into attending to infrastructure deficits. Further North, in the case of this supply chain food retailers often see collective bargaining as a risk to their business models and may impede its development in the supply chain. While the topic for further research, solidarity between workers laboring in the fields of San Quintín and at the retailers of U.S. cities may well be key to achieving a dignified strawberry industry.
I am deeply grateful to the ILR International Travel Grant Program for the opportunity to visit the San Quintín Valley, and to the communities there for sharing their insights. My hope is that our work at the ILR School contributes to the improvement of lives in San Quintín and throughout the global economy to which we are all so integrated.