The Horrible Cost Behind Your Cheap Mexican Produce

'LA Times' investigation finds a cutthroat farming culture that abuses workers
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 7, 2014 12:03 PM CST
The Horrible Cost Behind Your Cheap Mexican Produce
Mexican farmers pause during their protest march near the city of Queretaro, Mexico, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2008.   (AP Photo/Miguel Tovar)

Hanging over the steady stream of brightly colored peppers, avocados, and other produce that line the shelves of our Walmarts and Whole Foods is a darker cost, one carried on the backs of farm laborers in Mexico who often work six-day weeks for $8 to $12 a day. In an investigation that took 18 months, the Los Angeles Times interviewed hundreds of laborers in 30 camps across nine states, uncovering deplorable conditions and abuse that is easily tied to major American retailers. "The contrast between the treatment of produce and of people is stark," writes Richard Marosi. Among his grim findings:

  • Child labor: Though the situation is much improved over decades past, the Mexican government estimates that 100,000 children under the age of 14 pick crops, mostly on small and medium farms that funnel produce to the US through middlemen.

  • Living conditions: Marosi calls laborer camps "rat-infested," and finds they often lack beds, toilets, and water. "They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don't take care of us," says one field hand. "Look at how we live."
  • Pay: Low pay is compounded by employers who withhold wages and charge exorbitant prices at company stores, often resulting in laborers who end a back-breaking season by breaking even or even in debt. Laborers surrounded by food are often too poor to afford it, and thus starve. "We arrive here fat, and leave skinny," says one worker. The Times saw workers scrounging for food at Rene Produce, which sells to Whole Foods. "We take the findings you shared VERY seriously, especially since Rene has signed our social accountability agreement," says a rep.
  • Abuse: The Times found workers were frequently held against their will, and even beaten for attempting to escape. One such mega farm sells produce to Walmart, which said in a statement that "challenges remain" and "the world is a big place."
The full investigation is vast and well worth the read. (More Mexico stories.)

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