After spending some time at the home of the strawberry worker, we drove to a nearby labor camp. If you are like me, the first image you have when you read “labor camp” is that described in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath (an amazing book). I figured it must be better than that, and I have to admit, I didn’t even think labor camps existed anymore; yes, it was better than what I expected.
Here was a tiny community nestled between the dump and a correctional facility. It illustrated perfectly what environmental racism is all about. If you have ever seen military housing (meaning two tiny apartments next door to each other), this is kind of like what it was.
The building we met in was a school for the children. It was filled with bilingual books and learning games. But the testimonials we were going to hear definitely were not fit for children.
Six out of 10 women who cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. are sexually assaulted. As more women have become aware of this vicious act, they are actually starting to take birth control pills before they cross.
One of the young women we met, from Oaxaca, was raped during the crossing. This beautiful, young girl now has a baby boy. We were told that she has been learning to cope with the help of a nun. She had traveled back and forth with her father when she was 16 or 17 years old. They would travel as far as Michigan to help pick apples, blueberries and cherries and also go to Indiana – where they would pick corn.
But her father died while still in his 50s, and this time she traveled alone and unprotected. When she got here she slept outside in the wilderness because she had no place to stay. Then she went to a women’s shelter and eventually moved into a house with other women. Because of her son, she no longer has any plans to migrate back and forth.
We met other women who work in the strawberry fields – many have children. One had worked in the strawberry fields for 19 years. She spoke about extortion at the border, where gangs demand money for safe passage. She talked about a car full of people trying to cross the border, and when they refused to pay, one man was beaten and had his wallet stolen.
She works 7am – 4pm and has to produce 25-30 cases of strawberries (one case equals 12 baskets of strawberries). One of the women sustained an injury and suffers from excruciating pain doing this work.
She also discussed the problem of wage theft, which is very common for farm workers. A contractor will disappear when it is time for them to get paid. The growers blame it on the contractors and the workers have no recourse to collect payment for all of their work.
One of the questions brought up during the tour was why are the workers coming here? One of the main reasons discussed was NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which basically serves to benefit the United States. According to Dr. Lopez, millions of subsistence farmers were driven out of Mexico because of NAFTA. These are farmers who were able to grow enough food to feed their families and sell enough of the surplus to make a living. And a majority of these farmers grew corn, which was (and still is) a vital part of the diet in Mexico. However, with NAFTA, the U.S. was able to export much cheaper corn (which is subsidized by our government and was more plentiful due to GMO corn). Unfortunately, the introduction of GMO corn by the U.S. can literally wipe out the various strains of corn that have existed in Mexico for centuries.
In addition to this, I contend that corporations (from the U.S. and elsewhere) also go into Mexico for production of products (some of which are toxic, such as televisions from Panasonic) where they pay the workers less than they would be making in the U.S.
In the next and final section on the lives of farm workers, I will discuss in more detail about another form of corporate welfare – labor camps.