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Tomatoes or children?

18 July 2008

Tomatoes or Children?

Ben Davis, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center representative in Mexico, relates a poignant narrative of what’s wrong with trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

On Jan. 6, 2007, David Salgado, a 9-year-old worker from Guerrero, was run over and killed by a tractor while harvesting tomatoes on a farm in Sinaloa. In a May 9 story, Arizona Republic correspondent Chris Hawley reported the owner of the farm is a major supplier of open field and greenhouse products, including tomatoes, eggplant and sweet bell peppers, for the North American market.

The Arizona Republic reports the company paid the family $3,300 for funeral expenses but refused any additional compensation, arguing that it was not liable because the death occurred on a public road-although this was contradicted by a report from the Mexican Senate.

David’s case is far from unique. A recent investigation by three reporters for the Mexican newspaper Excelsior found that 30 child laborers between the ages of 6 and 14 died in work-related accidents in the state of Sinaloa in 2006 and 2007. And in December, nine children were killed when a truck carrying coffee pickers overturned in the state of Puebla.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues a massive investigation into the source of the salmonella outbreak that has so far affected nearly 1,000 people in the United States. In response to the outbreak, which some in the media called “the attack of the killer tomatoes,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified potential sources of the outbreak in the United States and Mexico, and major U.S. retailers responded by removing tomatoes from their shelves. (Just this week, the FDA ruled out tomatoes as the culprit, though investigations of other vegetables continue.)

The FDA warnings sent up a howl of protest from growers in the not-yet-ruled-out areas, who claimed they would be put out of business. Mexican growers accused the FDA of using the salmonella threat as a pretext to keep Mexican tomatoes out of the U.S. market and threatened a lawsuit under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA’s Chapter 11, regulating investment, gives private businesses the right to sue governments to challenge public health, environmental and safety regulations that might impinge on corporate profits.

While NAFTA protects the rights of large-scale Mexican tomato farmers to sue the United States government for consumer safety protection, it gives the U.S. inspectors no mandate to scrutinize even the worst labor rights violations, including child labor.

Fresh produce is one of those NAFTA “success stories.” U.S. imports of Mexican produce increased 35 percent between 2003 and 2007, from $3.2 billion to $4.4 billion. Many U.S. growers are relocating production to Mexico in response to worker shortages resulting from the immigration crackdown in the United States. Lucky for them, there is a large labor pool of rural families who have been displaced by imports of corn under NAFTA and government policies that favor commercial producers.

As reporters swarmed to the “killer tomato” story, many interesting facts about the tomato supply chain were revealed. It turns out tomatoes are hard to trace for several reasons. Tomatoes are not individually labeled, and nearly all tomatoes are re-packed several times before reaching their final destination. So tomatoes from Sinaloa in Mexico may be shipped to Florida, re-packed with locally grown tomatoes and then shipped out to New Jersey. Or Florida tomatoes may be re-packed in Mexico before being shipped to the United States.

There is no easy way for the FDA, let alone consumers, to know where, or under what conditions, the tomatoes they purchased were grown. To overcome this difficulty, FDA agents have traveled, farm by farm, in Mexico and Florida, inspecting each workplace to identify potential sources of the salmonella bacteria. It’s an impressive operation, and interestingly the Mexican growers-despite their cries of protectionism and complaints of attacks on Mexican sovereignty-are giving the U.S. inspectors complete access to their farms. They know that without the FDA seal of approval, it will be difficult or impossible to regain access to U.S. consumers.

It is gratifying that our government will go to such lengths to stamp out a dangerous bacterium. It is less encouraging to know that the inspectors were not looking at massive labor rights violations, especially the systematic employment of young children in hazardous conditions, which have existed in the tomato industry for decades. Earlier this year, migrant farm workers in Florida won a major victory when Burger King agreed to increase prices paid to tomato growers.

In Mexico, child labor in export agriculture has been documented for many years. A 2006 Mexican government report funded by UNICEF estimates that there are between 400,000 and 700,000 children ages 6 to 14 working in the fields.

It is unfortunate the U.S. inspectors, as they travel from farm to farm in Mexico, are not looking for child labor, or for workers laboring in 120-degree temperatures who are being sprayed with dangerous pesticides. It’s not that our government is unaware of the problem. In fact, the U.S. State Department’s 2007 human rights report on Mexico cites the UNICEF report’s statistics that “16 percent of children age five to 14 were involved in child labor activities.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that we Americans care as much about 9-year-olds being run over by tractors as we do about the risk of getting a stomach ache?

Meanwhile, David Salgado’s 10-year-old sister, Adriana, is still working in the fields.

 source: AFL-CIO Now blog