Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.
The farm laborers are mostly indigenous people from Mexico’s poorest regions. Bused hundreds of miles to vast agricultural complexes, they work six days a week for the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day.
At the mega-farms that supply major American retailers, child labor has been largely eradicated. But on many small and mid-sized farms, children still work the fields, picking chiles, tomatillos and other produce, some of which makes its way to the U.S. through middlemen. About 100,000 children younger than 14 pick crops for pay, according to the Mexican government’s most recent estimate.
The practice of withholding wages, although barred by Mexican law, persists, especially for workers recruited from indigenous areas, according to government officials and a 2010 report by the federal Secretariat of Social Development. These laborers typically work under three-month contracts and are not paid until the end. The law says they must be paid weekly.
The Times visited five big export farms where wages were being withheld. Each employed hundreds of workers.
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, bought produce directly or through middlemen from at least three of those farms, The Times found.
Half the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico, mostly from the area around Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. Many farms use growing techniques from Europe. Walls of tomato vines grow 10 feet tall and are picked by laborers on stilts.