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Slave Labour (pretty much) in Mexico

category international | worker & community struggles and protests | feature author Sunday November 29, 2009 20:31author by Sarah C - Independent Witness Report this post to the editors

Migrate or Die: Mexico's Hdden Crisis of Migration

featured image
OPIM men at the meeting in their headquarters,
Jane Jones from Tlachinollan in the foreground
and two Peace Brigades accompaniers
who are delegated to OPIM on the far right

David Salgado was a seasonal agricultural worker who died in the course of his work as a 'jornalero', that is a seasonal migrant worker on an industrial farming operation. His death occurred in Sinaloa state in northern Mexico in January 2007. Deaths in farming are all too frequent worldwide but this case was different, David , who hailed from Guerrerro one of Mexico's poorest states, was eight years old.

International media has often focused it's attention on the migration issues at the northern border between Mexico and the United States, this is where many Mexicans attempt to cross the border in search of opportunities to seek work and in many cases to ensure that they can earn enough for their basic daily needs. Inside Mexico's huge expanse of territory however, there are at least two further crises of migration, one is the perilous situation of migrants who are trying to journey through Mexico from it's neighbouring States to the south. The dangers faced by these people can not be overstated, they are at risk from traffickers, state forces, kidnappers, drug gangs and the journey itself.

The third crisis differs somewhat from both of those above;it concerns the internal migration of agricultural workers, from one state to another, inside Mexico's own borders. It might come as a surprise to the international tourists who frequent Guerrero state's world famous beach playground, Acapulco, that in that same state many people, including children as young as six years old, are forced to migrate to seek seasonal employment in conditions that are close to slavery on toxic farms in the northern fertile state of Sinaloa.

These migrants are even poorer than those who risk their lives to try to get to the United States, as this article will explain they have,currently, no other options than to contract themselves out as day labourers on agricultural mega farms. The existence of these workers and the conditions they endure belie the Mexican government's claims of a growing middle class and the existence of an effective system of legal, human and workers rights protections in the state.

Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre:

I recently had the opportunity to visit one of the areas from which many of these internal migrants originate and to interview the staff of one of the few human rights organisations currently working to raise awareness of this problem. 'Tlachinollan' has been working for over fifteen years to defend the human rights of the severely impoverished mountain and indigenous communities in the region.

Its headquarters, in dusty remote Tlapa de Comonfort (Tlapa) are located in the heart of a region that has the unfortunate distinction of featuring prominently in the united nations top ten list of world locations that have high incidences of child malnutrition. The bustling hectic town of approximately 35,000 inhabitants is five hours by bus on winding mountain roads from Chilpancingo the state capital and the location of many government offices.

Many dwellings in this area have earth floors, many villages have no schools, and some of those with schools do not have teachers to staff them. That this lack of educational facilities exists irrespective of the fact that the federal government's spend on education in Guerrero state is higher per capita that any other state in the country indicates the high levels of both corruption and incompetence in the delivery of services.

The area is peopled by 'campesinos' and various groups of indigenous people such as the Na Savi , Me' Phaa and Naua whose history predates the existence of the state of Mexico. Except for those who run small enterprises in the various urban centres that dot the remote mountainous region and those employed in the inexplicably huge military and police operations in the area, these people indigenous or Mestizo,practice some form of farming. If they are lucky it is subsistence farming, but in many cases now, due to environmental degradation, climate change, increasing privatisation of the communal land holdings and controversially, decrees designed to protect the environment that prohibit some of their traditional practices, their work does not provide enough to support a family with even the most basic necessities such as food,clean water or health care.

Many of the indigenous villages and settlements in the area are hours even from Tlapa, and they are not served by an adequate road or transport system. On the morning of my meeting with Tlachinollan there were around 30 people including elderly indigenous women, children and some well dressed Mestizo's waiting for the office to open. Two of those I spoke to explained that they had travelled for over ten hours on foot and by shared minibus to take their complaints to one of the 25 staff of this impressive NGO.

In the fifteen years that it has operated Tlachinollan has built strong relationships with the indigenous peoples, no easy feat as these reclusive communities have suffered successive regimes of persecution at the hands of institutions that continues to this day. Tlachi as it is known for short, began as a service to provide legal advice to the peoples of the area but has since expanded until today its staff includes a legal team, human rights education workers, who work in the remotest areas teaching communites about their human rights and how to access them, a physiologist,who helps victims of torture, state or domestic violence, a translator, an international team and personnel dedicated to fundraising and administration. Despite the fact that the award winning centre is funded by philanthropic foundations mainly based in the states and Canada it shows no hesitation in blaming the effects of globalized neo-liberal capitalism for many of the abuses it deals with.

Although Tlachinollan has been encouraged by,and indeed has supported a timid flourishing of indigenous activists who seek to develop and organise their communities in recent years, the situation does not inspire optimism. In february last year two leaders of one such organisation (Organisation for the future of the Mixtec Peoples -OFPM) were assassinated after having been abducted by armed men one week previously. The other notable indigenous rights group The Indigenous Me Phaa people’s Organisation - OPIM, currently has one of its activists, an Amnesty international prisoner of conscience Raul Hernandez, serving time in Ayutla de los Libres prison accused of a murder in which there has been no credible evidence against him presented.

The extent and context of this persecution warrants a little more explanation as I'm sure many readers will not be familiar with the situation in some areas of Mexico. Guerrero state is one of Mexico's chief drug producing areas and drug criminals and the attendant violence are of epic proportions here. Most areas are still in the hands of local Caciques, that is mafia- like families that maintain control of political power and wealth through violence and intimidation. This web of corruption and violence is not prevented by police or security forces, it is allegedly perpetuated by them. Guerrero police force is heavily armed, notoriously corrupt and violent and is widely believed to work hand in hand with drugs gangs, and local strong men.

I enquired from Tlachi as to what possible interest these elements could have with the impoverished residents of the mountainous area, their response was that any attempt at community organising was seen as a threat to the tightly held control of the criminal and political vested interests in the area. They also explained that the remote land of the indigenous peoples is of value to the drug growers and that this has resulted in waves of violence against any who are brave enough to object.

As a result the indigenous communities and rural dwellers have been victims of practices that seem to come from a past era; coerced sterilisation of indigenous men, forced evictions, demolition of houses, rape of women, torture, even in a case documented by Amnesty International in June (2009) the torture of a teenager and a disabled man by military officers.

In the same hamlet as the horrific incident above (Porto de las Ollas) as recently as Saturday 31st Oct, one week before my visit to Guerrero,a shocking crime took place; inhabitants of this tiny village which is located in Guerrero's Costa Grande area reported to Tadeco AC, a community development group based in Chilpancingo, that their village was undergoing a military incursion. This incursion resulted in the deaths, assassinations in fact, at the hands of military personnel, of three youngsters aged 15, 16 and 17 years old. Several highly respected Mexican human rights organisations including CCTI (Collectivo contra tortura y impunidad) are currently coordinating their resources to send a civil mission there to document this most recent tagic incident.

The dangers for human rights defenders working in theses areas are significant and some have international accompaniers in the from of the Peace Brigades to document threats and by their presence minimize the risks involved.

The inter american court of human rights recently ruled that three 'Human Rights Defenders' organisations in Guerrero including Tlachinollan and the indigenous group OPIM must be provided with adequate protection by the state. As Jane '(one of only two members of Tlachinollans staff that does not hail from Mexico) explained, though the organisation would welcome and in fact needs such protection so far a satisfactory service has not been provided.The complication being that some of the chief proponents of violence in Guerrero state are in fact the security forces, and it is these same forces that the government wishes to delegate to provide protection. Indeed this year Amnesty International also strongly condemned the use of military personnel and tribunals for civic duties that has become prevalent under the US funded Merida Initiative.

Migrate or Die:

On my first morning in Tlapa I read an article in a local paper that quoted Tlachinollan, in an expose on the abuses of migrant workers from this region, this was the first I'd heard of the situation and I asked the softly spoken owner of my guest house about it. He directed me to the local hospital which is the gathering point in Tlapà for those waiting for transport north to Sinaloa for seasonal work on the farms. The scene there was not the emotional scenes I had imagined from my memories of Irish people emigrating in the 1980's instead the people I saw assembled seemed reserved and behaved quietly. Many of the women were wearing cheap plastic one piece shoes that they looked unaccustomed to, and carrying holdalls with items such as bulk foodstuff that they would need on their their trip north.In a sight that disturbed me greatly many elderly women , more than likely grand parents, had tiny children ,too young to make the trip, in slings on their backs as they waved off two generations of their communities.

These migrants, as my hotel owner explained explained, are recruited by locals who receive payment for the each family they recruit. It is reported but as yet undocumented that some of those who board the busses have in fact paid their recruiter for the privilege of being selected to make the 30- 40 hour journey north from Guerrero to the northern farms. Whole families often make this trip in search of seasonal wages to ensure that they can feed themselves over the year ahead and purchase the seed and fertiliser needed to grow crops on the barren and increasingly degraded land. Falling food prices and rising costs of living have contributed to the situation whereby back breaking work on enormous farms away from the community life that is so central to these peoples seems the only option.Staff of Tlachinollan insist that ''migrate or die'' the name of their extensive report and documentary on these migrants is not a dramatic exaggeration but in fact is a ''what it says on the tin''description of the situation. Tlachinollan reports that despite the fact that child labour is prohibited in Mexico, 20 per cent of those employed in this industry are between 6 and 14 years of age. It is estimated that 3.1 million of Mexico's poorest people make these annual journeys and in a shocking statistic, UNICEF reports that of the 350,000 children that this figure includes,42 percent suffer from some form of malnutrition.

The farms

In the project mentioned above Tlachi studied the experience of 'jornalero' migrants from one particular village in Guerrero to a farm that produces exotic Chinese fruits and vegetables for wholesalers, restaurants and supermarket chains in the US, Canada and the EU. The villagers from Ayotzinapa,also the former home of David Salgado made the journey north with the expectation of five to six months paid work on the Buen Año farm in Sinaloa.

On this farm they work 11 or 12 hours per day and as reported by Tlachi the manager and owners consider that they are contributing to a better life for their workers. In the recorded interviews the manager explained clearly how he considers the jornaleros backwards, and incapable of running their own affairs. In a memorable quote he explained how in order to stop the villagers from spending money he doesn't give them free time such as weekends off from work. The manager insisted that he does not employ children, but Tlachinollans interviews with the workers have confirmed that children on the Buen Año farms receive half an adult's daily wages for the same hours of work. The manager refused to confirm this explaining how it was the workers backwardness and the fact that they saw their children as sources of income led to an ''occasional'' presence of underage people in the fields.

The daily rate of pay for an adult on Buen Año farm is 85 pesos, this, at current rates translates to less than 5 euros. For extra hours worked the labourers could hope to receive 40 peso's more but were expected to contribute 25 pesos per day to their living costs. The farm in question did in fact have a room that was allocated as a school room for the workers accompanying children, but several of the parents corroborated the fact that this 'service' was seldom and irregularly open, did not provide education in the relevant languages and in fact that on may occasions it was not staffed. Those interviewed did not feel they could leave their children unattended for the duration of their working day and so they brought them to whatever distant area of the farm in which they were designated to work.

The impressively productive operation of Buen Año which employs in the region of 1050 people most seasons, earns its owners over 70 000 US dollars per day during the 5-6 months the jornaleros are employed. This productivity does not result only from the maltreatment of workers; the farm is a cocktail of fertilisers and chemicals. Mexican farms still use over 20 dangerous pesticides and fertilisers that have been banned in Europe, Canada and the United States.
Tlachinollan has documented the arial dispersal of these toxic products taking place on the same fields being worked by the jornaleros. Many of those working explain that they do protect themselves from the pesticides by wearing headresses, bandanas and long sleeves. It is well known that in fact this can worsen the effects of the toxicity by trapping the chemicals against the skin.Through the open pores of people engaged in physical work these poisons can gain accelerated access to the bloodstream. Many of the chemicals used are labelled as only safe for use 4km from human inhabitation and with strict directions for the duration that must expire before people come in contact with the treated plants. Children, often weakened from lack of health care and poor nutrition in their formative years are daily exposed to these deadly chemicals. In documentary evidence gathered by Tlachi with the help of the villagers, children can be clearly seen to have eye infections, chronic coughs and there are several disturbing images of more seriously ill children and adults.

The worker’s lifelong lack of access to adequate education is reflected in the fact that from their own resources the journaleros do not have the capacity to ensure their own safety. Respiratory and skin ailments are,as you would expect, very common amongst the workers, and those who do not work on any particular day do not get paid. Anyone not fit to continue working on the farms does not does not receive compensation and these people are forced to wait out the season in the poor conditions whilst they are supported by other family members. The treatment of ailments caused by pesticides and chemicals is highly specialised and not available on the farm. Furthermore the journaleros do not have the language skills, literacy, documentation,or financial wherewithal to obtain treatment from the Sinaloa state’s healthcare system.

In one of the moral wrongs of the current world globalised market, it must be pointed out that these chemicals are largely produced in states such as the UK, Israel and the United states, all of which also have laws for their own citizens protection that forbid their use.

It should of course in any democracy be the responsibility of the state to legislate and implement measures for the safety of it’s workers, and that of an employer to ensure at the very minimum that these regulations are complied with. In this respect the state, the company and many other such farms not only fail to uphold the rights of these workers but are in fact probably criminally negligent.

David Salgado's case brought this situation to the attention of Mexico's media , David who had travelled with the rest of his family to another such farm in Sinaloa state was working in a field when he tripped and was run over by a tractor that was following the workers. It is likely that David's small size prevented the driver of the machine from seeing him.

The events that followed David's death are a tragic example of how the cycle of disadvantage caused by the Mexican government's failure to address the issues of nutritional, educational and structural poverty, and state sponsored violence in Guerrero state has lead to the situation where the state's citizens are forced to either migrate and endure such conditions or remain at home in ever worsening poverty.

The official state report of David's death indicated that he was killed on a public road, not whilst engaged in paid labour on a farm. The company also refused to accept that David had been their employee and in an abuse of the marginalised status of Dvaid's parents it fraudulently extracted signatures from them on a document that absolved the company and state of any responsibility:
The company had provided a sum of 6000 US dollars to David’s family group to pay for funeral costs, the shipping of his small body back to his home village and for the transport of his family back to the farm. They presented the Salgado family, all of whom are illiterate, with a document written in Spanish, a language they do not speak. The company manager described this as a reciept that they must sign to prove that they had received these expenses. I in fact this document was what we would know of as a ''full and final settlement'. The company failed to provide a translator which is the legal right of the indigenous in Mexico.

David's family sought help from Tlachinollan to secure a proper settlement and a vindication of their claims that they had been victims of a pernicious fraud. So far they have made some headway with this case and thanks to both their own determination and Tlachi's help it is likely that both a settlement and acceptance of culpability will be reached.

The situation of over 350,000 child workers being denied their basic rights will be less easy to solve.This results from a massive failure on the part of the Mexican authorities to comply with their obligations under international and national human rights law including tackling the poverty, marginalisation and persecution of the indigenous in a culturally appropriate way.

Despite how impressed I was with the conviction, dedication and expertise of Tlachinollan's staff , I would not envy them their task. It should not be underestimated how dangerous their work is, as so far the Mexican government has also failed to provide adequate protection for human rights defenders in the state. The persecution of formerly dignified and self sufficient communities and their comunal way of life is a global problem with global culprits.

Al cases referred to in this article are available in english and in more detail at or at

Thanks to Jane Jones from Tlachinollan and all of those who do not wish to be named.

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author by Diarmuid Breatnach - Personal Capacitypublication date Wed Dec 02, 2009 03:49author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thanks for this comprehensive and stirring report, Sarah.

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