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North America’s fruit industry feeling effect of farm workers’ strike in Mexico

Farmworkers march during a demonstration in San Isidro on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in Tijuana in Baja California state, March 29, 2015.

EDGARD GARRIDO/REUTERS

It's peak strawberry season in northwest Mexico, but fields and greenhouses were deserted last week during the first farm workers' strike in the region in decades. The air in San Quintin was heavy with the smell of strawberries, ripe and rotten, as salary negotiations foundered at the table.

Labourer Jesus Victoria y Victoria stood shivering beside a campfire, waiting to hear the results. He was one of thousands of people huddled in front of state government buildings as part of a massive regional demonstration.

"Day after day, it's the same," he said. "It's slavery of indigenous people. It's been going on for generations."

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Mr. Victoria, 24, is a farm labourer in San Quintin, about 300 kilometres south of Tijuana. Like almost all of his colleagues, he's of indigenous descent: He's Triqui, from south Mexico, who moved north to find work in the fields.

Like tens of thousands of others, he works picking fruits and vegetables for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, making an average of about $10 a day. They haven't had a raise in at least a decade, he said. Some live in rat-infested camps year round, and women say they are routinely harassed and raped by their supervisors. Despite these charges, there is little oversight of the farm workers' conditions. They are asking for a raise that would bring their earnings to $25 a day.

San Quintin is a small coastal town in Mexico's Baja California state, famous for its mild temperatures, dunes and beaches. The San Quintin Valley is also an important player in the world food economy: Thanks to its rich soil and sunny climate, it's a huge producer of fruits and vegetables, especially strawberries and tomatoes, which get shipped all over North America bearing "organic" stickers and sold by companies such as Costco and Driscoll's. About 10 per cent of Canada's imported strawberries come from Mexico, and about half of those Mexican strawberries come from here.

The labour dispute in the San Quintin Valley has reverberated throughout North America. Farm workers walked off their jobs earlier this month and demonstrated in the streets of this usually sleepy area, demanding an end to inhumane working conditions, low pay and harassment, which they say is endemic among farms in Baja California.

Most of the farms they work for say that the kind of raise the workers are demanding is economically impossible, that although agriculture is big business, the profits occur so far up the supply chain that they couldn't possibly spare more money.

"It's a complicated situation for the companies," said Alberto Munoz, who represents local farm owners. The businesses' offer to the striking workers was an increase of 10 per cent, about a dollar a day. Negotiations, tense from the beginning, collapsed after he walked away from the bargaining table on Friday.

A 10-per-cent offer was tantamount to a slap in the face, said Fidel Sanchez, spokesman for the farmworkers' alliance. He says agribusinesses are profiting from what is essentially slave labour.

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"It's an awful situation for the jornaleros, the labourers," said Mr. Sanchez. "It needs to stop, for our children, for our grandchildren."

Workers continue their demonstrations, but have vowed to remain peaceful. On the weekend, they travelled in caravans of buses throughout the state of Baja California to bolster popular support for their strike, and to encourage people to boycott fruits and vegetables grown by the businesses that refuse to give them the raises they are demanding.

Despite Friday's breakdown in negotiations, there is a ray of hope for workers. The owner of one small farm, Los Molinos, has agreed to pay his employees the equivalent of $17 a day, declaring it will not cause him any economic hardship to do so.

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