"Product of Mexico" — it's a label you see on fruit and vegetable stickers in supermarkets across the U.S.
It's also the name of an investigative series appearing this week in the Los Angeles Times.
Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep spoke to reporter Richard Marosi about his 18-month investigation in Mexico. Wednesday's story in the series follows Ricardo Martinez, a farmworker who tried, unsuccessfully, to leave a labor camp.
According to Marosi, the farmworkers are "the invisible people of Mexico, the poorest, the most discriminated." That's what makes them so vulnerable to abuse in farm labor camps.
The camps are in remote regions of west and northwest Mexico, and are attached to the megafarms that produce millions of pounds of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables, much of them bound for the U.S.
"They live in rooms 6-by-8 generally, and shedlike housing, sometimes no furniture. They sleep on scraps of cardboard," Marosi says.
The workers are forced to buy food from the company stores, where the prices are heavily inflated. Even making $8 to $12 a day, which is more than they might make at home, they can't keep up with the high costs.
"A lot of these places, they illegally withhold the wages of the workers; they're there on three-month contracts, they're not paid until the end," he says. That means they don't even have the money to catch a bus and escape the farm.
Marosi says a lot of the blame lies with firms that project an image of social responsibility or tote their many badges of certifications from labor groups. In reality, they are not actually enforcing their standards.
"I went and looked at some of the places with some of the better reputations, and I found appalling conditions at many of them," including one where people were actually being held captive, he says.
There are other problems, too: "Some of these camps are so remote that people, even if they want to go check the conditions, don't know where they are. So it's up to the agribusiness owners to tell them, and sometimes they don't," explains Marosi.
There are American exporters and representatives of retailers like Wal-Mart in Mexico, he says, but they're looking out for food safety, not the conditions of the laborers.
For example, the farms Marosi saw have very advanced irrigation canals to grow high-quality tomatoes and cucumbers. But the labor force has no water to shower with when they go home.
The only way these conditions may change is if the U.S. puts pressure on the retailers who buy from the Mexican megafarms, says Marosi.
"If there's consumer pressure," he says, "retailers at that point can act to bring in higher, third-party, independent auditors to make sure that the [retailers'] requirements of social responsibility guidelines are being met."
Following Marosi's investigation, some companies have reported that they've instituted corrective action plans or ceased operations with unsafe megafarms. However, even a year after one farm was raided for its poor worker conditions, it still produced 700 million pounds of tomatoes.
The problem isn't limited to big-box retailers, either — even farmers markets can import from Mexico, as Marosi explains: "A lot of the farmers market is sourced from regional wholesalers or regional produce markets, and much of that comes from Mexico."
For more videos and photos from the investigation, visit the Los Angeles Times' site.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Product of Mexico is a label you see on fruit and vegetable stickers in supermarkets across the United States. And it's also the name of an investigative series this week in the Los Angeles Times. The LA Times examined the work conditions for farm workers who produce Mexican vegetables for export to the United States. The investigation found that the workers treat the vegetables pretty well. But the workers are not treated well. In fact, many of them are confined under what are described as appalling conditions. We're going to discuss this with Richard Marosi, who worked 18 months on the series. Welcome to the program.
RICHARD MAROSI: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Let me dive right into this. Is this slave labor? You describe people who are actually confined behind fences - can't really even seem to leave.
MAROSI: Under strict definition, no. It's not slave labor. But it seems like it's a system that is especially designed to exploit people, workers who pick the produce that much of America eats.
INSKEEP: And who are these people?
MAROSI: They are largely the indigenous people of Mexico. They live in mud-hut villages deep in the mountains. They're largely the invisible people of Mexico - the poorest, the most discriminated against. And they're bused hundreds of miles north to these enormous mega-farms in northern Mexico that produce tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers in the hundreds of millions of pounds.
INSKEEP: And these - just to be clear - these are tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers that I may have eaten - that you have may have eaten from any number of supermarkets or in a restaurant somewhere?
MAROSI: They reach all corners of the United States. Roughly half of the tomatoes that are consumed in the United States come from Mexico these days.
INSKEEP: Now, when people are bused to these farms, what are conditions like? What's a day like for the people you interviewed?
MAROSI: Well, you know, these folks live behind barbed-wire fences in labor camps. They live in rooms six by eight, generally in shed-like housing - sometimes no furniture. They sleep on scraps of cardboard. They are fed two meals a day roughly. Usually it's soup.
So one young worker said it all to me. He says, we arrive here fat, and we leave skinny. They make about eight to $12 a day. They go home, sometimes with not a penny in their pocket. And sometimes they go home owing money to the company store where they had to buy much of their basic necessities. It's basically kind of a hand-to-mouth existence. They go to work to stay fed - for many of these folks. And there's an important role that American companies are not playing, actually, because some of the reasons that this is occurring is because American companies that import a lot of the produce are not enforcing their own social responsibility guidelines.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about that part because in today's Los Angeles Times, you describe something called the Mexican Center for Philanthropy giving effectively a seal of approval - actually voicing approval of the very appalling farm that you describe in your story. How are we supposed to know who's responsible and who's not when there's a situation like that?
MAROSI: Well, that's the problem - I mean, all of these firms trying to project an image of social responsibility. And they've got all these badges of certifications from these groups. But when you take a really hard look at these places, there's many problems.
INSKEEP: How hard have American corporations tried not to do business with the worst offenders?
MAROSI: Not at all. I mean, there's no evidence that - the bottom line is there is a heavy presence of American inspectors down there and representatives of these companies. They are all over these farms - in the fields, in the greenhouses, in the packing facilities because their goal is to keep American consumers safe. You know, they're focusing on food safety. They know these farms. They've been there. They've had relationships for years. They don't pay much attention to the conditions of the laborers. They don't generally visit the labor camps where these laborers live. That's not something that they're focused on. They're focusing on keeping U.S. consumers safe.
INSKEEP: You're suggesting that if there were similar inspections of working conditions, there might be a change quite promptly?
MAROSI: Well, down there, the U.S. retailers, restaurant chains - they are the regulators. Mexican labor laws are not - are pretty weak. And there's very little enforcement, right? So the only regulatory agency is really - the U.S. retailers are the regulators.
INSKEEP: Because they're the people paying.
MAROSI: They're the people paying. They - as one labor contractor told me - the gringos put up the money, and they make the rules. And we follow the rules. Believe me. The U.S. retailers have enormous leverage over these folks.
INSKEEP: Richard Marosi writes for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks very much.
MAROSI: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.