The global berry industry is probably not one you think about much but you should. The terrible conditions of food production around the world is something that I cover quite a bit both here at in Out of Sight. The food production system is as hidden from you as apparel or plastics or oil, but with the difference that because food affects our bodies so profoundly, there is more interest by consumers to act when they find out about exploitation. One thing consumers can do is to boycott Driscoll’s berries.
While Driscoll’s is a family-owned company, it’s no mom-and-pop operation. According to its website, over 40,000 people are involved in its berry production worldwide. The company has a code of conduct for its suppliers, called the “Promise for Workforce Welfare,” which includes obeying minimum legal requirements and avoiding egregious labor violations like human trafficking and conditions “posing immediate risk to life or limb.” Driscoll’s says it is committed to hiring suppliers that “show a sincere commitment” to such principles.
But Bonifacio Martinez questions whether those requirements are enough. Martinez picked strawberries and blackberries destined for Driscoll’s boxes for 10 years. Now he’s a leader in the farmworker movement that erupted last month in the fields of San Quintin, in the Mexican state of Baja California. Thousands of farm laborers picking multiple crops stopped work for nearly two weeks, demanding higher wages and legally required benefits, among other protections.
“The principal demand is for [growers] to actually respect the workers’ rights,” says Martinez. He wants them to honor labor laws that are, at the moment, he says, just “dead words.” Those include health benefits and freedom from sexual harassment.
Many of the San Quintin protesters are indigenous people from some of Mexico’s poorest states, like Oaxaca and Guerrero. Indigenous people make up more than half of Mexico’s agricultural workers.
The striking pickers initially wanted wages increased to 300 pesos a day, then lowered the demand to 200 pesos, about $13. Most of them earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike.
Protests turned acrimonious when demonstrators threw rocks at government vehicles and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, reported the Los Angeles Times. Workers also blocked 56 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway. By April, the strike had effectively ended after growers signed agreements raising wages 15 percent—far less than the pickers demanded.
The leaders of the movement rejected the meager increase, saying the unions that signed those agreements, which are affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which held power for nearly three-quarters of the 20th century and has strong connections to many unions throughout the country, do not represent workers. The workers continue protesting even as many have returned to the fields.
A note here: PRI-associated unions are not real unions that have actual worker voices. They are fully part of the party structure and serve the party, not workers. A major issue within the Mexican labor movement is trying to undermine these “unions,” which often are part and parcel of the same grotesque corruption that flows throughout the whole PRI. So to some extent this is a matter of convincing workers that they can get more by defying the agreements, which is possible.
There’s a U.S. side to this as well.
Driscoll’s responded swiftly to the BerryMex fracas. But it was not as quick to act to resolve a dispute that escalated while the San Quintin protests raged: a bitter labor fight in Burlington, Washington.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), which says it represents over 400 berry pickers, has been locked in a labor struggle with Driscoll’s supplier Sakuma Brothers Farms since 2013. FUJ has long held a boycott against Sakuma berries and its largest customers, Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs. On March 24, it doubled down on the boycott when the fair trade advocacy organization Fair World Project sent a letter to Driscoll’s, signed by nearly 10,000 consumers, asking it to suspend buying from Sakuma Brothers until the dispute is resolved. The signatories pledged not to buy Driscoll’s berries until then.
FUJ’s list of complaints is long: poor wages, squalid labor camps, firing and retaliating against workers for organizing and hiring guestworkers from Mexico to replace FUJ’s members. The H-2A guestworker program Sakuma Brothers participated in is meant to be used only when there aren’t enough workers domestically. FUJ says it had plenty of willing workers, but that Sakuma Brothers used guestworkers to avoid hiring back FUJ’s members.
“The only thing we want is a fair contract for both of us,” says FUJ president Ramon Torres.
Sakuma Brothers denies that FUJ represents the berry pickers, calling them “outside agitators” who “have attempted to fabricate the impression that this is a worker movement.” Danny Weeden began his tenure as the company’s CEO just this year and says FUJ’s campaign is hard to understand.
Outside agitators. Can we just assume that anyone who uses that term has just declared themselves a bad human being? And hard to understand? Workers are poor, live in terrible camps, and don’t like being fired for organizing. This does not seem hard to understand.
Notably, these workers in both Washington and Baja California are largely indigenous people from southern Mexico. We usually think of Mexicans as a homogenous group of people, but that’s really untrue. Indigenous people are routinely exploited within Mexico including at the workplace, where they are paid less and toil at the hardest and most dangerous jobs. That gets repeated in the United States, as large number of poorly paid field workers are not only not native English speakers but also not native Spanish speakers. There are cases of indigenous Mexican children in U.S. schools being labeled as developmentally disabled because they don’t respond to their Spanish speaking teachers. But they don’t speak Spanish so why would they? They speak Zapotec or Mixtec or languages with even smaller number of speakers.
This also passes my boycott test, which is that it is called by workers and their representatives (in both Mexico and the U.S.) as opposed to consumers personally boycotting to feel good about themselves by, say, buying second-hand clothing and then saying they have done something about sweatshops (a position rejected by the Bangladeshi workers movement among others). Driscoll needs to take responsibility for its suppliers. Like we need to hold Walmart and Gap responsible for its suppliers in the apparel industry (as well as food for the former), we need to hold Driscoll responsible as well. Ultimately that has to happen by a number of ways, including reforms to U.S. labor law making unionization easier, greater inspections of farms in the U.S., and international labor standards that would not allow berries produced under the awful labor conditions so common for fruit and vegetables for the American market. Oaxacan indigenous peoples in Baja California and Washington, Bangladeshi workers in sweatshops, slave labor on shrimp boats in southeast Asia–all of these workers are part of a system of global exploitation for western companies, all of which happens far away from the eyes of consumers. And that’s how the companies want to keep it.