As many as 50,000 mostly indigenous farmworkers have gone on strike in the Mexican border state of Baja California in order to demand better pay and working conditions — bringing agricultural production to a standstill. After clashes between protesting workers and police broke out last week, labor leaders and agribusinesses decided to begin negotiations. So far, agribusinesses have refused to meet the demands of the workers as protests continue and crops — including berries, tomatoes and cucumbers — spoil in the fields.
The strike began on March 17 in the San Quintin valley, located about 200 miles from the border with California, with the release of a list of demands in a communique by the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, a coalition of indigenous groups. The workers claimed that earlier appeals to government officials concerning the treatment of farmworkers had failed. Along with complaints about discrimination, child labor, violence against workers, harassment of female workers, lack of overtime pay, and a lack of parental leave, the central demand of the strikers was a minimum wage of 300 pesos ($20) per day.
Shortly after the demands were made, workers staged a protest by blocking one of Baja California’s main highways. Heavily-armed police cracked down on this blockade leading to clashes between protesters and cops along with about 200 arrests. Despite that initial outburst of violence, things calmed down once negotiations began on March 19.
The talks between the striking workers and their employers have not gone well though.
“We all want to solve this problem,” Marco Antonio Estudillo, a representative of the main growers’ organization in the region, told the Guardian before a meeting on March 25. “But what the strikers are asking for is impossible due to market conditions.”
During the same meeting, Alberto Munoz, a lawyer for an association of agribusinesses known as the Agricultural Council of Baja California, refused to answer questions from labor leaders about exactly which growers he represented.
The farmworkers, who currently make on average about 150 pesos per day, have since lowered their demand from 300 pesos per day to 280 pesos per day, but agribusiness representatives still refused to meet all of the strikers’ demands, instead offering workers a mere 10 percent raise. Workers responded by turning down the offer and staging a march, attended by thousands of people, from the town of Vicente Guerrero to a government building in San Quintin.
As these talks continue, many of the unpicked crops in Baja California’s fields have begun to rot. The governor of Baja California, Francisco “Kiko” Vega, already warned that “if the fields continue without a workforce, the harvest will be lost and that will effect everyone who depends on this part of the economy.” According to the mayor of Ensenada, Gilberto Hirata, Baja California, the state that brings in the most revenue for strawberry cultivation in Mexico, has already taken an economic hit.
“Millions of dollars have been lost,” Hirata said. “The fruit is splintered and has fallen down. It must be pulled off the plants so new fruits can sprout.”
One small grower, DeWayne Carlos Hafen, co-owner of Los Molinos Produce, denounced the larger growers’ refusal to increase wages and offered to raise his workers’ salaries to 250 pesos per day. After making the offer, Hafen claims that state inspectors visited him demanding to see his employment records. He suspects that larger growers are using their government connections to silence those willing to meet the workers’ demands.
“A happy worker is a productive worker,” he told the TV network Televisa. “If I can pay this, the big farms can pay it too, and more.”