Farmworkers in Mexico, Facing Human Rights Abuses, Prepare to March in Protest / by Bianca Fortis

Photos and story by Griselda San Martin

Cecilia Sanchez, 25, has two children and is pregnant with her third. When asked how far along she is, she simply tilts her head and shrugs. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t been able to see a doctor yet. She lacks the money for the bus to get to the clinic.

Sanchez’s husband works as a farmworker each day, sometimes spending more than 12 hours in the field. This month he is picking strawberries. He earns 700 pesos – about $35 – each week.

On March 17, 2015, thousands of farmworkers from the San Quintín Valley of Baja California went on strike during the peak of the tomato and strawberry picking seasons. They marched en masse all the way to the Mexico-U.S. border, setting up roadblocks and barricades along the way to protest against abuses, low pay and poor working conditions. The violent demonstrations captured international headlines at the time but after nearly a year of striking, the farm workers’ demands have yet to be met. The workers are now preparing to march again.

"We demand a collective bargaining agreement where the rights of the workers are acknowledged and protected," Gloria Gracida, a teacher and spokesperson for the laborers, said.

Gracida knows about the working conditions that the farmworkers endure because she would go to the fields during the weekends when she was ten years old.

"I have seen with my own eyes the exploitation that they suffer," she said. "I’ve seen people growing old in the fields with no rights."

San Quintín, located about 200 miles south of San Diego, is a rich agricultural region which ships most of its produce across the border to the United States. The modern productive processes still require human hands to harvest the crops, and thousands of indigenous workers are "hired" on a daily basis as a source of cheap and flexible labor. They endure long hours hand-picking produce in extremely hot temperatures with no gear to protect against pesticide exposure. They make as much in a day as they would make in the U.S. in an hour.

Laureano Santos, who works at BerryMex, a large berry operation, said most of the pickers make about 7 dollars a day after working shifts of up to 14 hours. And in many cases, those individuals have to support families of six or more people.

The farmworkers’ want an independent union contract with the right of a collective bargain agreement, fair wages, overtime pay, safe working conditions, an end to sexual harassment, and to end child labor. In their own words, they demand an end to the the "modern slavery" conditions they now endure.

"Besides the demands for better working conditions, we also insist on better living conditions," Octavio Lopez, member of the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, said.

"The children of farmworkers are alone all day and in the streets while their parents are working in the field making no more than 9 dollars a day," he said. "And that is not enough to satisfy their basic needs of decent housing, healthcare and education, one of the most crucial things a child can use to overcome poverty and build a better future."

The areas where the farmworkers live are difficult to access through unpaved dusty roads. Large families are crammed into small rooms in makeshift houses made of little more than cardboard and plastic. They live without electricity or running water and their front yards are often full of dirt, trash and burnt garbage.

From Thurs., March 17 to Sun., March 20, thousands of farmworkers will march from San Quintín up to the border at Playas de Tijuana where they will meet farmworkers from the U.S marching in solidarity with them in an event known as la Marcha de las dos Californias. The purpose of the march is to commemorate the first anniversary of the strike and to publicize that after a year of striking, their demands of establishing measures to ensure their labor and human rights are respected in accordance with the law, have not been met.

The National Democratic Union of Independent Farmworkers and the the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice are also asking American consumers to show solidarity with the farmworkers of San Quintín and boycott Driscoll's berry products, as it purchases most of the fruits that are harvested in the valley.