Alleging Labor Abuses, U.S. and Mexican Workers Call for Boycott of Driscoll’s Berries

Rachel Luban April 18, 2015

The popular berry company is experiencing labor unrest in both American and Mexican fields. (Mike Mozart / Flickr)

Driscoll’s may be the U.S.’s most rec­og­niz­able brand name on straw­ber­ry, rasp­ber­ry, blue­ber­ry and black­ber­ry car­tons. Its con­ven­tion­al and organ­ic berries can be found year-round every­where from Sam’s Club to Whole Foods. To keep its berries stocked far and wide, the com­pa­ny uses a vast sup­pli­er net­work stretch­ing from Cana­da to Argentina.

But some of those sup­pli­ers are com­ing under fire for alleged­ly abus­ing work­ers, in the U.S. and Mex­i­co. One Driscoll’s grow­er has spent weeks embroiled in a major farm­work­er protest, while a near­ly two-year boy­cott against anoth­er grow­er recent­ly inten­si­fied. Work­ers in both dis­putes have called for a boy­cott against the company.

Pover­ty wages in Baja

While Driscoll’s is a fam­i­ly-owned com­pa­ny, it’s no mom-and-pop oper­a­tion. Accord­ing to its web­site, over 40,000 peo­ple are involved in its berry pro­duc­tion world­wide. The com­pa­ny has a code of con­duct for its sup­pli­ers, called the Promise for Work­force Wel­fare,” which includes obey­ing min­i­mum legal require­ments and avoid­ing egre­gious labor vio­la­tions like human traf­fick­ing and con­di­tions pos­ing imme­di­ate risk to life or limb.” Driscoll’s says it is com­mit­ted to hir­ing sup­pli­ers that show a sin­cere com­mit­ment” to such principles.

But Boni­fa­cio Mar­tinez ques­tions whether those require­ments are enough. Mar­tinez picked straw­ber­ries and black­ber­ries des­tined for Driscoll’s box­es for 10 years. Now he’s a leader in the farm­work­er move­ment that erupt­ed last month in the fields of San Quintin, in the Mex­i­can state of Baja Cal­i­for­nia. Thou­sands of farm labor­ers pick­ing mul­ti­ple crops stopped work for near­ly two weeks, demand­ing high­er wages and legal­ly required ben­e­fits, among oth­er pro­tec­tions.

The prin­ci­pal demand is for [grow­ers] to actu­al­ly respect the work­ers’ rights,” says Mar­tinez. He wants them to hon­or labor laws that are, at the moment, he says, just dead words.” Those include health ben­e­fits and free­dom from sex­u­al harassment.

Many of the San Quintin pro­test­ers are indige­nous peo­ple from some of Mexico’s poor­est states, like Oax­a­ca and Guer­rero. Indige­nous peo­ple make up more than half of Mexico’s agri­cul­tur­al workers.

The strik­ing pick­ers ini­tial­ly want­ed wages increased to 300 pesos a day, then low­ered the demand to 200 pesos, about $13. Most of them earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike.

Protests turned acri­mo­nious when demon­stra­tors threw rocks at gov­ern­ment vehi­cles and police respond­ed with tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets, report­ed the Los Ange­les Times. Work­ers also blocked 56 miles of the Trans-Penin­su­lar High­way. By April, the strike had effec­tive­ly end­ed after grow­ers signed agree­ments rais­ing wages 15 per­cent — far less than the pick­ers demanded. 

The lead­ers of the move­ment reject­ed the mea­ger increase, say­ing the unions that signed those agree­ments, which are affil­i­at­ed with the Par­tido Rev­olu­cionario Insti­tu­cional (PRI), which held pow­er for near­ly three-quar­ters of the 20th cen­tu­ry and has strong con­nec­tions to many unions through­out the coun­try, do not rep­re­sent work­ers. The work­ers con­tin­ue protest­ing even as many have returned to the fields.

Although the dis­pute involved var­i­ous crops and grow­ers, a pri­ma­ry tar­get of the strike was BerryMex, one of Driscoll’s largest sup­pli­ers in the region. Last week, on the anniver­sary of the death of agrar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion­ary Emil­iano Zap­a­ta, the farm­work­ers called for a boy­cott against Driscoll’s and all the com­pa­nies that make a prof­it by exploit­ing our labor.”

Accord­ing to state­ments by Driscoll’s and BerryMex, fol­low­ing the strike BerryMex increased the earn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty” for its more than 4,000 work­ers to $5 to $9 an hour — well above the strik­ers’ demands and the grow­ers’ con­ces­sions. This pay increase means that each indi­vid­ual now has an aver­age earn­ing poten­tial of six to 10 times of Mexico’s min­i­mum Fed­er­al wage and as much as 16 times for high­er per­form­ing work­ers,” the state­ments read.

This is a ter­ri­ble lie,” says Mar­tinez. He says BerryMex has raised its wages more than some of its peer grow­ers, but only to 180 pesos a day, about $12. That’s a far cry from $5 to $9 dol­lars an hour. Oth­ers famil­iar with the protests expressed skep­ti­cism of the cal­cu­la­tion as well. Pick­ers are paid based on how much they pick, not by hour. That means hourly rates for fast pick­ers under opti­mum con­di­tions can far exceed aver­age rates. In that case, the earn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty” will not be the earn­ing real­i­ty for most laborers.

BerryMex is not just any Driscoll’s sup­pli­er. It is part of Reit­er Affil­i­at­ed Com­pa­nies (RAC), which says it is the largest fresh, mul­ti-berry pro­duc­er in the world.” Driscoll’s is RAC’s only cus­tomer. And RAC’s CEO, Gar­land Reit­er, is the broth­er of Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter.

From San Quintin to Skag­it County

Driscoll’s respond­ed swift­ly to the BerryMex fra­cas. But it was not as quick to act to resolve a dis­pute that esca­lat­ed while the San Quintin protests raged: a bit­ter labor fight in Burling­ton, Washington.

Famil­ias Unidas por la Jus­ti­cia (FUJ), which says it rep­re­sents over 400 berry pick­ers, has been locked in a labor strug­gle with Driscoll’s sup­pli­er Saku­ma Broth­ers Farms since 2013. FUJ has long held a boy­cott against Saku­ma berries and its largest cus­tomers, Driscoll’s and Häa­gen-Dazs. On March 24, it dou­bled down on the boy­cott when the fair trade advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Fair World Project sent a let­ter to Driscoll’s, signed by near­ly 10,000 con­sumers, ask­ing it to sus­pend buy­ing from Saku­ma Broth­ers until the dis­pute is resolved. The sig­na­to­ries pledged not to buy Driscoll’s berries until then.

FUJ’s list of com­plaints is long: poor wages, squalid labor camps, fir­ing and retal­i­at­ing against work­ers for orga­niz­ing and hir­ing guest­work­ers from Mex­i­co to replace FUJ’s mem­bers. The H‑2A guest­work­er pro­gram Saku­ma Broth­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in is meant to be used only when there aren’t enough work­ers domes­ti­cal­ly. FUJ says it had plen­ty of will­ing work­ers, but that Saku­ma Broth­ers used guest­work­ers to avoid hir­ing back FUJ’s members.

The only thing we want is a fair con­tract for both of us,” says FUJ pres­i­dent Ramon Torres.

Saku­ma Broth­ers denies that FUJ rep­re­sents the berry pick­ers, call­ing them out­side agi­ta­tors” who have attempt­ed to fab­ri­cate the impres­sion that this is a work­er move­ment.” Dan­ny Wee­den began his tenure as the company’s CEO just this year and says FUJ’s cam­paign is hard to understand.

We’re real­ly doing every­thing and more than what they’re ask­ing, but they just con­tin­ue to mis­rep­re­sent the facts,” he says.

Wee­den says that start­ing this sea­son, the com­pa­ny will pay work­ers $10 an hour plus a gen­er­ous bonus for each pound of berries picked. He says the hous­ing is con­tin­u­al­ly upgrad­ed and that the com­pa­ny does suf­fer from a labor shortage.

After near­ly two years of dead­lock, the Fair World Project and its near­ly 10,000 con­sumer sig­na­tures final­ly prompt­ed Driscoll’s to respond. In a state­ment, the com­pa­ny said it had hired an inde­pen­dent, lead­ing work­er wel­fare orga­ni­za­tion” to audit Saku­ma Broth­ers, and that the final audit showed that the com­pa­ny had prop­er­ly addressed any poten­tial claims” of work­er mistreatment.

Felimon Pine­da, FUJ’s vice pres­i­dent, doubts the audit’s accu­ra­cy. If it’s true that peo­ple from Driscoll’s came to check Saku­ma farms, the first thing they should have done was ask the farm­work­ers,” he says. Because they’re the ones who feel the pain. They’re the ones who know the work­ing conditions.

Pine­da, who is from Oax­a­ca, is a link between San Quintin and Burling­ton. For him, the con­nec­tion between them runs deep­er than boy­cotting Driscoll’s. He got his start pick­ing straw­ber­ries at the age of 13 in a town in Baja Cal­i­for­nia right next to the cur­rent protests. I’m in sol­i­dar­i­ty with these peo­ple because they’re my peo­ple,” he says.

Like many of the Baja work­ers, Pine­da is indige­nous. The val­ley of San Quintin is full of peo­ple from Oax­a­ca and Guer­rero who speak Mix­te­co like me,” he says, refer­ring to an indige­nous lan­guage spo­ken in the region. He says his own broth­er is part of the protests in Mex­i­co. I remem­ber my peo­ple because I also suf­fer from the com­pa­ny. … It didn’t seem right that the folks in San Quintin would be on strike and I would just be quiet.”

The con­nec­tion makes sense, says Gas­par Rivera, a bina­tion­al advi­sor to the Frente Indi­ge­na de Orga­ni­za­ciones Bina­cionales and researcher at the UCLA Labor Cen­ter. Indige­nous peo­ple have a his­to­ry of pick­ing berries, one of the hard­est and least desir­able farm jobs. Once they acquired berry-pick­ing know-how in Mex­i­co, many migrat­ed all the way up to Wash­ing­ton to do the same work.

They’re work­ing on both sides of the bor­der for this inter­na­tion­al com­pa­ny,” Rivera says. Driscoll’s has man­aged to devel­op a pro­duc­tion sys­tem that extends from Baja Cal­i­for­nia all the way to Wash­ing­ton to be able to sup­ply the U.S. mar­ket, and oth­er mar­kets, with straw­ber­ries all year round.”

Work­ers on both sides of the bor­der are now lead­ing boy­cotts against Driscoll’s, but it’s unclear whether the company’s actions will go beyond issu­ing state­ments. Although Driscoll’s requires its sup­pli­ers to com­mit to the Promise for Work­force Wel­fare, it says it will not inter­vene in labor negotiations.

Driscoll’s does not have a role in any labor nego­ti­a­tions between farm­ers and farm­work­ers,” the com­pa­ny says. Our focus and respon­si­bil­i­ty is on work­er wel­fare and ensur­ing legal com­pli­ance is adhered to by all our inde­pen­dent grow­ers.” The com­pa­ny says it has nev­er ter­mi­nat­ed a sup­pli­er for labor violations.

Rivera thinks Driscoll’s hands-off approach is disin­gen­u­ous. It’s more like the Wal­mart mod­el of shift­ing the risk to these grow­ers,” he says. This has been Driscoll’s line, [that it is] not respon­si­ble about the work­ing con­di­tions. Which is par­tial­ly true but par­tial­ly false. Ulti­mate­ly they have a lot of pow­er over these grow­ers because they can say, Hey, if you don’t shape up and employ work­ers in a fair way, we’re going to stop buying.”

Rachel Luban is a writer liv­ing in Mary­land. She con­tributes to Full Stop and her work has appeared on Jezebel, The Rum­pus, and In Our Words. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @rachelcluban.
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