Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mexican labor issues in U.S. food retail markets

To understand food policy in the United States, one must pay attention to Mexican and Central American farmworkers in this country, but also to farm labor in Mexico.

The Los Angeles Times today has started an article series and a remarkable video series on the Mexican workers who produce in Mexico for export to the United States.
The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming "Product of Mexico."

Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers.

American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.

These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.

But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.
One future contributor to a more just food system could be policies that U.S. importers and supermarkets may adopt, stipulating standards for farm labor in the upstream supply chain. To some extent, such policies are being developed. The LA Times article reminds us that these policies are not yet working smoothly.

Another contributor to a more just food system could be changes in the supply and demand for farm labor, leading to higher wages and better working conditions. It is important to pay attention to these fundamental economics, and not just to labor standards that supermarkets promise to adopt.

Two of the best agricultural economists covering this issue are Philip Martin and J. Edward Taylor. Their 2013 report, titled "Ripe with Change" (.pdf), summarizes (in somewhat blander language!) many of the same terrible conditions that the LA Times article reported, while also reporting some promising trends in tighter labor markets for Mexican farm workers. In particular, demand for agricultural production has been increasing across North America, while simultaneously employment demand in other Mexican industries has expanded. An essential question is whether Mexican workers will reap the benefits, or instead whether small increases in wages will provoke large increases in mechanization, leaving workers little better off than before.

No comments: