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SAN QUINTÍN VALLEY, Mexico — In the fields of BerryMex, one of the largest berry growers in the San Quintín Valley of Mexico, laborers hunch over at the waist for hours. They shuffle through long rows of organic strawberry plants — long called the devil’s fruit by pickers — meticulously checking each one for ripe fruit. This backbreaking work earns them pennies — 12 cents to pick a 1-pound pack that retails for $4.99 at a Whole Foods near Washington, D.C.
Ernesto Morales (his name has been changed for his employment protection), 60,picks strawberries for BerryMex. A Mixtec from the southwestern state of Oaxaca, he’s among the 6 million Mexicans who speak indigenous languages. He never attended school, tending his family’s animals instead. At 15 or 16, he started picking tomatoes in the western state of Sinaloa. He didn’t speak Spanish until after he moved to Baja California in the early 1970s.
In March, Morales joined thousands of pickers in the largest strike of Mexican farmworkers in decades. At the peak of harvest, pickers walked out of the fields and blocked the highway north leaving fruit to rot on the vine. Police responded swiftly, breaking up the demonstrations with tear gas and batons. Dozens were arrested.
Though Morales and his wife participated in the demonstration, they avoided the crackdown.
“We went to support the strike,” he said. “My wife and I think alike. We are thinking about our kids, our youth. We are older now. We can die anytime. But we want a future for our children, our youth. We want them to move forward. We went to support the strike and to listen to what the leaders have to say.”
After days of negotiating, farm owners offered field workers a 15 percent raise — about $1.20 more a day for the average worker. Leaders of the strike responded by reducing their demand from 300 pesos, or $20, a day as a basic day rate to 200 pesos a day. The farm owners rejected the counteroffer and walked away from the talks.
In the meantime, most pickers returned to work. The idea of a prolonged work stoppage was never a reality for low-paid laborers like Morales.
“There are too many people who want to work. If we don’t go to work, there are plenty of people who want to work. There is no option for us. We have to go,” he said.
Many workers said they felt the same way. As much as they wanted to keep pressure on the growers while the negotiations continued, they also needed to keep food on their families’ tables.
“Most of the world is unemployed or underemployed so it’s very easy then to break up strikes,” said Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Institute for Food Development and Policy in Oakland, California. “That's especially true in Mexico where people have been dispossessed of their land. So people will work for basically starvation wages because they need to work.”
With the wage issue still unresolved in April, and workers still in the fields, labor leaders escalated their pleas to the federal level. In early June the government announced a compromise, which experts have hailed a historic victory for labor. They announced a tiered system in which farms are grouped by size. The new day rates for large operations will be 180 pesos a day; medium, 165 pesos; and small farms, 150 pesos. What it means for Morales is about an extra $4 on the new day rates.
It’s not what Morales had hoped for, but he’ll certainly take it — he has no other choice. His family lives paycheck to paycheck.
“When I can no longer work, that’s it,” he said. “But now I can still work, even though I am slower. My body is tired, but I do all I can.”
Morales has worked in the fields for more than four decades. After years of working in Sinaloa and Baja California, in 1975 he paid a coyote $300 to ferret him across the border to the U.S. — a trip that can cost up to $5,000 today.
“When I arrived in Fresno, the first thing I did was trim grapevines, peach trees, nectarine trees, plum trees. I used to trim all that,” he recalled. He followed the harvest up the West Coast from California to Washington state and back, part of the mostly invisible labor behind the bounty of produce that fills U.S. grocery stores and homes.
“The typical agricultural worker today is indigenous — is from Oaxaca, maybe from the [indigenous] Triquis,” said Holt-Giménez. The Mexican fieldworkers’ traditional migration route starts in Oaxaca and winds through Sinaloa and Baja California before crossing into the U.S. and running through California’s Imperial and Central valleys, all the way up to the border with Canada. According to Holt-Giménez, the Mexican migrant workers are the most exploited, marginalized and vulnerable laborers on the continent.
“And these are all former peasants,” he continued. “They’re former peasants because, one, that’s where they learned how to work so hard. No one else works this hard. You have to have started working this hard by the time you were 5 years old. And two, because of the free-trade agreements. Their economies were destroyed, and they were no longer able to compete with subsidized corn coming from the U.S.”
Morales’ most recent stay in the U.S. was from 2005 to 2011, after which he returned to Mexico to care for his wife, Dominga Muniz, who was sick at the time. A father of nine, he decided to remain in Mexico because of the loneliness of life without his family and an increasingly hostile environment for undocumented immigrants working in the U.S.
“Being there without papers, you are always on the watch for immigration services or something like that,” he said. “But there are farm owners who gave us work there, and we want to work. If there are farm owners who want to hire us, we do the work. We just want to work.”
Morales said he bought almost everything he now has — a relatively large house with kitchen cabinets, a refrigerator and running water — with money he earned in the U.S.
His days of hard labor continue — no less difficult in Baja California but far less lucrative. He has gone from making $8 to $11 an hour north of the border to about the same amount for a day’s labor in San Quintín.
“To bend forward all day long, we get tired. When we stand up, our waist really hurts,” Morales said.
He said his wife’s workload is even more grueling. Muniz wakes at 4 a.m. six days a week to prepare lunches. The two of them then board a 5:45 a.m. bus that delivers pickers to any one of BerryMex’s many ranches in the valley. Theoretically, the workday is eight hours, but many workers say it often lasts longer. Pickers say they are at the mercy of their bosses, who determine when the work is done and buses may leave.
BerryMex’s sole distributor in the U.S. is Driscoll’s, a privately owned company based in Watsonville, California. With the tag line “Only the finest berries,” Driscoll’s is one of the largest distributors of berries in the country and can be found in stores ranging from Whole Foods to Walmart. Berries are the No.-1-selling fruit in the U.S., with more than $3 billion in annual sales, according to Nielsen Perishables, which tracks sales of fresh fruit in U.S. grocery stores.
Muniz washes clothes and cooks dinner after returning home in the evenings. She feels she cannot miss a day of work, as exhausted as she may be, because 16 members of their family, from three generations, live in their home. Including Muniz, eight of the 11 adults work in the fields, and every salary is needed to get by.
'There are too many people who want to work. If we don’t go to work, there are plenty of people who want to work. There is no option for us. We have to go.'
On a recent Sunday Muniz and Morales went grocery shopping for the family.
Loaded into their station wagon — another luxury purchased with money he earned in the U.S. — they drove across San Quintín, passing large flashy grocery stores that would look familiar to most Americans. Eventually they arrived where the pickers shop. It’s not as shiny or bright, but it’s not bad either.
As the couple ambled up and down the aisles, every selection became an exercise in math: Which item is least expensive? Is this bag of rice or roll of toilet paper a few pesos cheaper than that one? Eventually their cart swelled with provisions for the week. At the checkout it totaled 1,576.48 pesos, or just over $100. Not bad for such a large family, but for workers who average about $10 a day, it was a significant portion of their budget and was possible only because it’s harvest time for strawberries.
Pickers are paid a basic day rate with incentives, depending on how many berries they pick. During harvest, they earn more money. Between harvests? “We have to forget the meat and eat only beans, rice and soup,” Morales said.
San Quintín, like much of the rest of Mexico, has experienced rising costs of living. Morales has never earned much, but he says his pay once stretched further.
“With 100 pesos, we could buy many things, and we had an extra 200 or 250 pesos. Now every month, every moment, prices are rising, and we don’t get paid more money. Our earnings are not enough.”
If he wants to earn more, Morales will have to pick more strawberries. But there’s a constant pressure on pickers to harvest only the best-looking berries, which limits how much he can make.
“The site managers tell us we have to pack the best fruits because buyers are squeamish and cleaner than us,” Morales said. “Well, when there are a lot of strawberries, we try to pick just the best ones. But if there are not many strawberries to pick, we can’t do much work.”
BerryMex has said that workers have the opportunity to make $5 to $9 an hour.
"The issue of wages is a very murky issue. It’s not clear. It’s very hard to have a conversation with either employers or workers and to know exactly what people make. And this is extremely frustrating,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, the project director at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “Even workers when they look at their pay stub, they wouldn’t be able to tell you what they make. And I think that’s something that has to change. We need to make it clear on the part of employers, on the part of workers, a paying system that is predictable and is clear for everybody so that we know how much they make.”
He said wages vary by season and how fit workers are. “A fast picker at the peak of the season would make pretty good money, and that’s the attraction of this,” he said. “When young women and men are flexible and they’re willing to work hard, they can sustain that kind of work for three months.”
After decades of this tough work, it’s difficult for Morales and Muniz to keep up with the younger workers.
“They always make more money than we do because they are faster,” he said. “They get to pick 40 boxes, and we can barely pick 25 to 30 boxes. And yesterday I picked only 13 boxes with good quality.”
BerryMex and Driscoll’s declined repeated requests for an interview, but Soren Bjorn, Driscoll’s executive vice president, provided this written statement:
BerryMex, an independent grower of Driscoll’s berries, took an active role in negotiations well before the agreement last week. As one of Driscoll’s strongest partners, they have consistently served as a leader within the larger agriculture community in Baja throughout this process by increasing wages and earning potential for their workers and going beyond just fair pay to also focus on advancing working conditions. We truly believe that if other growers in Baja modeled themselves after BerryMex, most of the issues that have plagued the San Quintín community could have been avoided.
Both BerryMex and Driscoll’s are owned by the Reiter family.
Another big player in the San Quintín Valley is Los Pinos Ranch, which exports 250 million pounds of tomatoes a year to the U.S.
Los Pinos CEO Fernando Rodriguez recently toured some of his hothouses while workers picked tomatoes. Each hothouse holds about 3 1/2 acres of tomato plants. Workers on stilts adjust the vines on high lines as pickers fill white buckets with 20 pounds of mostly green tomatoes. Tomatoes are ripped from the vines and thrust into the buckets with such speed and force it sounds like snare drums beating as bands of pickers swarm the aisles. Once their buckets are filled, they sprint to a center path, where a tractor pulls a trailer with large white crates that pickers dump their fruit into. A counter puts a tick by each pickers name on a roster as they dump their buckets. For each 20-pound load, a worker receives a single peso.
When the white crates are full, the tractors take their haul to the largest tomato packing plant in the Americas, where belts usher tomatoes through lines of quality assurance workers and a computerized system that weighs and takes seven photos of each tomato. Eventually they are dumped by size and quality into cardboard cases and loaded onto trucks. Within hours, they will be in the U.S. heading to a grocery store, reddening along the way.
Rodriguez admits it would be hard to get by on what pickers make. He said prices across Mexico are rising, including the price of growing tomatoes. “All prices are increasing. Beehives are increasing, the pollination system. The desalination is expensive … The carton is expensive,” he said. “The margin day after day is less and less.”
Holt-Giménez said most of the wealth of the $6-trillion-dollar-a-year food industry ends up in the hands of the processors and retailers.
“Would it make that much of a difference to the consumer if workers were paid fairly?” he asked. “And the answer is almost always no.”
At a D.C.-area Whole Foods, a pamphlet above the strawberry display shows a white farmer on a vintage tractor smiling and holding a bunch of leeks. The photo on the promotional material bears little resemblance to the people who actually pick the berries — people like Morales and Muniz, who so painstakingly ensure that those strawberries look perfect, because they wouldn’t pick the devil’s fruit any other way.
Fault Lines premieres "Invisible Hands," hosted by Josh Rushing, on Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. ET. View an excerpt from the program here.