Modern Day Slavery in Mexican Tomato Fields

If you haven’t seen or heard about it yet, stop what you’re doing and read the LA Times’ powerful series of articles on modern day slavery and other human rights abuses taking place in some of the giant Mexican tomato fields that supply Walmart, Safeway, Subway, Olive Garden, and other popular U.S. retailers and restaurants. 

The LA Times’ reporters visited 30 different mega-farms in nine different Mexican states, observing conditions first-hand and interviewing hundreds of workers and their family members. 

We’ve listed the main findings, taken directly from the report, below:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

Earlier this year, Walmart joined the Fair Food Program, committing to purchasing an undisclosed amount of its tomatoes from farms in Florida that are certified by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-driven monitoring system that has succeeded in eliminating forced labor and other abuses from the U.S. tomato harvest. 

But the Fair Food Program only exists in the U.S. and there is currently no equivalent for produce coming from Mexico. 

In the wake of this explosive report, attention should now focus on how Walmart, Safeway, and others can use their tremendous market power to improve labor conditions in Mexico’s agricultural export industry.  

Will they commit to identifying and purchasing from Mexican suppliers who are doing things the right way, even if it means paying a few more pennies per pound? 

Or will they issue another round of vague, PR statements and move on to a new “low-cost” producer? 

Photo by Naomi Wolf, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).