While helping farmworkers organize into unions in Mexico’s northern coastal state of Baja California, Abelina Ramírez holds workshops on labor rights, including gender equality.
Ramírez, who has picked berries for 13 years in the region after migrating from her home in the country’s southern Oaxaca region, says it is important for farm workers “to realize that together, we can join forces and go up against the employers and the government and get a better life for ourselves and our families.”
“It’s important for us to get the message out to workers to join the union”—Abelina Ramírez Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“I decided to join the national caravan [in 2017] from San Quintín to Mexico City,” says Ramírez. “I joined the coordinating team because neither [of the organizations leading the strike] had a woman leader who could speak to any of these issues, and that’s where I got fully involved,” she says, speaking through a translator. (Ramírez discusses her work here.)
The strike drew international attention to the conditions of the region’s roughly 80,000 workers who pick berries and tomatoes for 160 different agro-industiral companies, and workers ultimately won wage increases, boosting pay from approximately $4 per day to $8-$10.
Ramírez, now alternate secretary of gender equality for the National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democrático de Jornaleros Agrícolas, SINDJA), was among speakers at the recent Solidarity Center conference in Los Angeles, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain.”
In an interview with the Solidarity Center, Ramírez says workers are still fighting for their original 14 core demands, among which is onsite medical facilities. Workers who are injured or fall ill in the fields must be transported long distances to receive care, and some have died in transit, she says.
Further, despite the wage increase, farmworker pay is still comparable to wages paid in much poorer countries, and farmworkers say a national wage category for them should be created, as exists for carpenters and other professional workers.
“What we’re fighting for is a professional-level salary because we see the work we do—cutting, picking and packing—as part of a professional category, and we’re not being respected,” says Ramírez.
Women Farmworkers Struggle to Care for Their Children
Like many women and men in Mexico’s southern Oaxaca region, Ramirez saw an opportunity to improve her livelihood when a labor recruiter showed up promising good wages for picking berries and tomatoes far north, in San Quintín.
“When there are no options because of poverty, we end up migrating,” says Ramírez, who has picked berries for 13 years.
Most mothers who migrate for work take their children but, once in the fields, find no public services and no child care, and “that’s when you realize this crude reality of what moving has meant—you can’t provide for your children and give them an education,” she says. Unable to afford decent housing on the low wages they are paid, many farm laborers are forced to live in company or government encampments—each family occupying a space between 9 square feet and 13 square feet, with shared bathrooms and laundry.
“That’s why it’s important for us to get the message out to workers to join the union, she says. “It’s important for them to realize that together, we can join forces and go up against the employers and the government and get a better life for ourselves and our families.”
Ramírez holds workshops on labor rights, including gender equality, and now seven women trained by the union meet with women farmworkers to encourage them to take part. She reaches the women by “starting with issues that matter to them: They care about child care, medical attention,” says Ramírez.
As she experienced during the 2015 strike, when “everybody joined, my family, my children joined, we got our signs and we went out,” Ramirez says “we knew that we could achieve something if we all went out.”
And that’s why Ramírez sees union organizing as fundamental to improving worker rights.
“Because coming together, through our unity, we’re going to achieve the changes we’re striving for.”
The two-minute video explains the forms of gender-based violence at work, which include bullying, verbal abuse and stalking, systemic gendered imbalance between employers and workers that enables employers to get away with unsafe working conditions and other worker abuses.
Workers, employers and government officials currently are debating a proposed International Labor Organization (ILO) convention (regulation) that would address violence and harassment at work, and the video ends with a call to action tojoin the campaign.
“This is unacceptable. It violates the foundations of democratic societies: freedom of association, assembly and speech. The global labor movement and anyone who cares about worker and human rights are rightly outraged,” said Solidarity Center Africa Regional Program Director Hanad Mohamud.
The AFL-CIO, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUUC) and ZCTU condemned the attack. “It is saddening that once again the workers of Zimbabwe have been denied the right to organize, assemble and freely express themselves barely two months after the swearing in President Emerson Mnangagwa, who proclaimed a new dispensation for the people of Zimbabwe and promised transformation from the previous President Robert Mugabe brutal administration which repeatedly violated workers’ rights with impunity,” said SATUUC in its statement.
The arrested leaders have been ordered to appear in court October 30.
Around the world, farmworkers typically are not covered by labor laws and are prevented from exercising their fundamental legal rights, namely to form unions and bargain collectively, says Jeff Vogt, director of Rule of Law for the Solidarity Center.
Sponsored by the Solidarity Center, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and UCLA Labor Center, the event gathered farm worker activists and food justice advocates in Los Angeles to share strategies to build worker power, create decent work in the fields and demand greater justice across global food chains.
One-third of workers around the world labor in agricultural supply chains—planting, harvesting, transporting goods, retail—yet wages are a small fraction of what it costs to bring food to your table, says Vogt.
In Tunisia, where 61 percent of farmworkers are low-wage, temporary employees with no job security, the Tunisian federation of labor (UGTT) waged a nationwide campaign to cover farmworkers in labor laws.
Beginning in 2014, the UGTT negotiated a collective framework agreement with the government and employers that regulates safety and health, provides social protections, and guarantees the basic rights of labor.
The UGTT’s advocacy campaign is now engaging workers to inform them about their new rights. “It is a long fight that we will continue until we get the victory for all workers,” says Tahri, speaking through a translator.
Across the globe in Los Angeles, Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) Local 770 is working on living wage initiatives to raise the minimum wage and paid sick leave, and has launched an apprenticeship programs for meat cutters it hopes to expand to other food workers.
Throughout, the union is educating workers on their rights on the job, says UFCW Local 770 President John Grant. “We view workplaces, especially union workplaces as places where workers put forward their voice for what’s important,” he says.
“In the community, you have voice in deciding, for example, whether there will be a park. But without a union, you don’t have democracy in the workplace to decide what’s going on,” Grant says.
Agnieszka Fryszman, a law partner at Cohen, Milstein, discussed three cases that utilized the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) to see justice for workers trafficked in food supply chains.
One involves rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand. A coalition led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of the seven workers who had brought their suit based in part under the TVPRA, which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.
Adrienne DerVartanian, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration and Labor Rights, Farmworker Justice, noted the importance of educating lawmakers about challenges farmworkers face and empowering women farmworkers who are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse in the fields.
As participants discussed how to go forward, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau says when we talk about taking the next step for food workers, “we are talking about unstoppable forces against repression, be they government or be they corporations.”
“Our approach is to challenge systems and create access to capital,” says Azusena Favela, director of programs and operations, Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN). Working with the 50,000 street vendors across Los Angeles, LURN piloted a loan program for vendors to access the resources they need to improve their own economic conditions while championing laws that enable vendors to freely operate.
“The biggest misconception is that street vendors choose to do this. Most times its not a choice. It’s basic survival many times,” she says, describing the long hours involved beginning with procuring goods to sell for long hours throughout the day.
“We understand that if it were not for street vending, street vendors probably would not have opportunity to survive in a city as expensive as LA.”
“Our goal is to get everyone the benefit of a union and fight for every worker the same as if they had a collective bargaining agreement,” Hicks says.
Lorenzo Rodríguez Jiménez, general secretary of the National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (SINDJA) in Mexico, discussed the struggle to form a union of farmworkers in an environment in which many unions are government-backed and not run in the interest of workers.
Sarah Gammage, director of gender, economic empowerment and livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), emphasized that it is “really important to remind us of the importance of organizing” a theme echoed throughout the day, as worker advocates and their food justice allies began building on their mutual strength and vision across global borders.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.