This weekend the Los Angles Times wrapped up an explosive 4-part investigative series exposing the horrific conditions at Mexican farm labor camps. Product of Mexico pulls no punches as it takes readers into the worker camps attached to industrial mega-farms that send millions of pounds of tomatoes into the United States.
The workers are recruited from Mexico’s poorest and most discriminated populations of indigenous ethnic groups living in remote regions. They’re trucked to distant farms with the promise of decent housing and a weekly salary of $48 for the duration of a 90-day contract. In fact they are housed in squalid shacks, often with no mattresses, working toilets, or running water. Some are held against their will behind barbed wire fences, and some are trapped by employers who withhold wages for the duration of the 90 days. Others are trapped by debt—to the recruiters who charge them a job placement fee, or to the on-site company store where the captive workers overpay for basics like soap and food.
Fully half of all the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. are the product of these farm camps. But don’t worry; the produce itself is coddled. Immaculate greenhouses and packing facilities adhere to the food safety standards demanded by American customers. There might not be sinks and showers at the camps, but food handlers are treated to nail trimmers and hand sanitizers so that the tomatoes will pass through unblemished.
The list of U.S. customers includes nearly every major produce distributor and restaurant chain. Retailers carrying the tomatoes run the gamut from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods, so no matter what kind of shopper you are, you’re likely eating the tomatoes. And until American consumers are willing to use their voices and purchasing power to speak out against the abuses and exploitation, you’ll continue to do so.
Here are some steps you can take on the road to systemic reform:
Visit Fair Trade USA for a list of fair trade certified products and local retailers that carry them. The Fair Trade produce label ensures that farms will meet certain requirements for the treatment of workers, and they are subject to regular inspections and audits to maintain their standing.
Join your local Fair Trade Campaign that works with schools, hospitals, and other local institutions to broaden the availability of fairly-traded products in your community.
Read the Product of Mexico series. You’ll never buy another Mexican tomato.