Imagine this scenario for a second: With companies resisting efforts to boost pay for their lowest-wage workers, and little support for raising the minimum wage legislatively, the government decides to make up the difference with taxpayer dollars.
While some argue the United States already does that through Medicaid and food stamp benefits for workers who aren’t paid enough to afford basic necessities, subsidizing wages outright might seem like a step too far.
And yet that’s exactly what the government of Baja California, Mexico apparently agreed to do a couple weeks ago for agricultural workers in the San Quintin valley who’d been protesting for higher pay and benefits for months. Along with enforcement of laws requiring employers to pay for benefits like healthcare and subsidized housing, the state said it would contribute enough to get thousands of workers up to 200 pesos per day, or $13. That’s higher than Mexico’s minimum wage, but way lower than what laborers could earn just north of the border, where many have relatives and have worked themselves.
If the Mexican state follows through by a self-imposed deadline of June 4 — and that’s a big “if,” given lack of support from the federal government — it's a dramatic step. Even if it doesn’t, the whole episode illustrates just how trapped Mexico is between rising popular pressure for better living standards and the desire to keep businesses from chasing ever-lower wages around the globe.
“For a long time Mexico has been carving a niche in terms of its place in the globalized world, which is that they have cheap labor, and subsidized access to natural resources,” says Gaspar Rivera Salgado, project director at the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Labor Research and Education. Now, Mexico faces competition from countries across the hemisphere, where people work for even less.
“Places in Mexico have to balance how much they concede and make it affordable for these companies to invest,” Salgado says. "That’s the big discussion for regions like San Quintin — how much do they push? How much is enough?”
“Places in Mexico have to balance how much they concede and make it affordable for these companies to invest. That’s the big discussion for regions like San Quintin — how much do they push? How much is enough?”
— Gaspar Rivera Salgado
Here’s the economic backdrop to the fight in Baja. Demand for agricultural labor in Mexico has actually been dropping since the mid-1990s, as automation increased each worker’s productivity, and the North American Free Trade Agreement led to a flood of imports from the United States. Meanwhile, the labor supply decreased as well, as education levels rose, fertility rates fell, and people moved to the cities for higher-paying manufacturing jobs.
But in recent years, producers in Mexico have moved into higher-value crops like berries, fresh vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms. Those are more labor-intensive, putting farms in places like Baja in competition with growers in California, Washington, and Oregon that are paying ever-higher minimum wages mandated by their respective states.
The 30,000 workers in San Quintin know that. While agribusiness has invested heavily in equipment to get those delicate crops to market, workers have been subject to brutally long shifts and lack access to basic amenities. The contrast between life north and south of the border, illuminated last year in a Los Angeles Times series on how major American brands source crops like strawberries and tomatoes originate from harsh contract farms in Mexico, is part of what finally stirred the unrest.
“Now workers are challenging the core of the economic model, and that is huge,” Salgado says. “In the end that’s the main question that workers in San Quintin have put on the table: What’s in it for us?”
Protests started in earnest in March, with workers walking off the fields, occupying government buildings, and shutting down the Transpeninsular Highway. The work stoppage allowed crops to rot in the fields, keeping blueberries off San Francisco shelves. Law enforcement responded with rubber bullets and arrests. In the following weeks, some producers — such as BerryMex, which supplies the American company Driscoll’s — voluntarily agreed to raise wages by 40 percent. But strike leaders, assisted by the California-based United Farm Workers, continued to push for a more comprehensive deal. In mid-May, the Baja government put out its proposal for subsidizing wages, which still has yet to be finalized.
Even if that agreement never actually comes to fruition, UFW president Erik Nicholson says the push has gotten farmworkers further than ever before in fighting routine violations of labor laws. And this kind of movement wouldn't necessarily have happened several years ago, before the American public started to become more conscious of the people who produced their food, just like they became aware of the sweatshops where their Nikes were made. Wal-Mart, for instance, recently launched an initiative to ensure workers who pick its groceries are treated decently.
“We’re seeing that same concern coming to food, and borders are increasingly irrelevant,” Nicholson says. “People want to make sure there’s no ugliness in the supply chain.”