By Emilio Godoy (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – “They mislead the workers, tell them that they will be paid well and pay them much less. The recruiters and the employers deceive them,” complained Marilyn Gómez, a migrant farm worker in Mexico.
Gómez, a member of the Mixteco Yosonuvico of Sonora Cerró Nublado cooperative and the mother of two girls, told IPS that the migrant workers are forced to buy whatever they need in their employers’ stores – “where everything is super expensive” – because they aren`t allowed to leave the farm.
“There’s no social security, no contracts, we work very long hours. They take advantage of the fact that people need work,” said Gómez, who began to work in the fields with her family at the age of 13, picking grapes and vegetables in the northern state of Sonora.
The 27-year-old migrant worker and activist, who has worked sick and has frequently worked for more than 12 hours a day for just a few dollars, has harvested fruit and vegetables near the town of Miguel Aleman, part of the municipality of Hermosillo, about 1,600 kilometers north of Mexico City.
Her account illustrates the working conditions of migrant farm workers, who provide substantial returns to their employers and who put vegetables and fruit on the tables of Mexican and U.S. consumers.
They are generally peasant farmers who migrate temporarily or permanently from the southern states to harvest export crops in central and northern Mexico.
They routinely suffer violations of labour rights, and of their rights to housing, education, health and a healthy diet.
And they lack work contracts, adequate working conditions, social security and overtime pay, according to the report “Violations of the rights of agricultural day laborers in Mexico”, launched on Mar. 21 in Mexico City by the National Network of Agricultural Day Laborers, to which Gómez belongs.
In Mexico, migrant farm workers or day laborers are the main victims of slave or forced labor, according to this and other local and international studies. The National Network, made up of workers’, indigenous and academic organizations, has identified cases of labor exploitation, human trafficking and forced labor and/or services.
The latest National Survey of Occupation and Employment, from 2017, placed the number of migrant farm workers at 2.9 million, while the governmental Program of Care for Agricultural Day Laborers put the figure at 1.54 million, plus 4.41 million family members who follow them as they move about.
The government of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, dismantled the program and has not yet put in place its successor.
There are 1.95 million victims of slave labor in the Americas, five percent of the world total, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, produced by the non-governmental Walk Free Foundation, based in Australia.
Forced labor represents 66 percent and persons, especially women, in forced marriage, account for 34 percent. The region has, on average, a prevalence of 1.9 people living in modern-day slavery per 1,000 inhabitants.
And one-third of the victims of forced labor were in debt bondage, while the Latin America and Caribbean region accounted for four percent of all exploited laborers in the world.
While Haiti, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic had the highest rates, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia had the absolute largest numbers of people in situations of slavery.
In Brazil, Latin America’s giant, with a population of 208 million, 369,000 people were living in modern-day slavery, representing 1.8 per 1,000 inhabitants.
In Mexico, the second largest regional economy with 129 million inhabitants, 341,000 people were living in slavery conditions, or 2.71 per 1,000 people, while in Colombia, the fourth largest regional economy with a population of 45 million, the figure was 131,000, or 2.7 per 1,000.
Modern-day slavery includes human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation, according to the Walk Free Foundation.
For Mayela Blanco, a researcher at the non-governmental Center for Studies in International Cooperation and Public Management, migrant farm workers in Mexico are vulnerable to falling prey to trafficking for labor exploitation.
“There is a recruitment chain in which the recruiters offer people work and an advance payment to draw them in, but there is no contract. In some places, they don’t get paid until the end of the work period,” Blanco told IPS.
There are a growing number of studies on this phenomenon in the Mexican countryside, and there has been no improvement for day laborers.
The “2018 List of goods produced by child labor or forced labor”, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, includes reports on people forced to work in the production of chili peppers in Mexico.
“Many of these victims report being recruited by middlemen, called enganchadores, that lie to workers about the nature and conditions of the work, wages, hours, and quality of living conditions,” the document states.
Cases of forced labor in chili peppers production predominantly occur on small and medium-sized farms and have been found in states such as Baja California, Chihuahua, Jalisco, and San Luis Potosi, according to the report.
“Once on the farms, some men and women work up to 15 hours per day under the threat of dismissal and receive subminimum wage payments or no payment at all,” it adds.
Meanwhile, “Some workers face growing indebtedness to company stores that often inflate the prices of their goods, forcing workers to purchase provisions on credit and limiting their ability to leave the farms,” the report says.
In Mexico, the company stores on factories and rural estates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known as “tiendas de raya”, where the workers were forced to buy their provisions – just like the company stores of today.
The U.S. list also includes cattle ranches and peanut farms in Bolivia, textile factories and logging companies in Brazil, and Brazil nut harvesting and the logging industry in Peru.
Washington bans the entry of goods produced with forced labor, under the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, in force since 2016 and based on the old Tariff Act of 1930.
Since 2015, the governmental National Human Rights Commission has issued at least six recommendations for violations of the rights of migrant farm workers, which are non-binding proposals.
In one of them, issued in 2018 for violations of several human rights for trafficking in persons, such as child labor in the form of forced labor, the Mexican Commission highlighted abuses against at least 62 migrant workers belonging to the Mixtec indigenous people, including 13 adolescents.
The members of the indigenous group, originally from the central state of Guerrero, were harvesting cucumbers in the western state of Colima.
Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, number eight, which promotes decent work, sets among its targets the implementation of “immediate and effective” measures to eradicate forced labor, ban modern forms of slavery and human trafficking, and ensure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor.
Despite some advances and international commitments, Latin America and the Caribbean are making only moderate progress in the fight against this phenomenon.
The Global Slavery Index gave the region an average rating of “B” and indicated that Argentina, Chile and Peru improved their status compared to 2016, while Brazil, Mexico and Central American countries remained the same.
Blanco says the conditions faced by migrant workers in Mexico are seen as normal and that they are not considered victims. “They run the risk of losing their jobs. We have not seen a response from the authorities,” she said.
Gómez, who is still a migrant worker harvesting fruit and vegetables but now in decent conditions, said the government should intervene. “The institutions don’t do what they are supposed to do; we are asking that they take action and ensure our rights,” the activist said.
The National Network made recommendations such as a census of employers, the monitoring of working conditions, a comprehensive program to address the issue and a census of migrant workers.