Baja farm­work­ers’ wage hike deal may un­ravel

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Richard Marosi richard.marosi@la­times.com

Vi­o­lent protests gave way to cel­e­bra­tions last month when the Mex­i­can fed­eral gov­ern­ment — in a last-ditch ef­fort to end the Baja Cal­i­for­nia farm­worker strike — ten­ta­tively agreed to boost wages by foot­ing part of the in­creased pay­roll costs.

Thou­sands of la­bor­ers went back to work, the high­ways to ex­port mar­kets in Cal­i­for­nia — blocked at times by pro­test­ers — stayed open, and la­bor lead­ers hailed the break­through as a rare, po­ten­tially his­toric victory for Mex­ico’s farm­work­ers.

But as gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try and farm­worker lead­ers pre­pare to meet Thurs­day to fi­nal­ize an agree­ment, the out­come ap­pears far from cer­tain. Agribusi­ness own­ers have re­fused to sup­port the deal pub­licly, and ques­tions re­main as to whether the gov­ern­ment is will­ing or able to fol­low through on the ac­cord signed May 14.

The strike, which be­gan in mid-March, has at times crip­pled Baja Cal­i­for­nia’s agri­cul­tural econ­omy.

The re­gion’s grow­ers are among the big­gest in Mex­ico, sup­ply­ing lead­ing U.S. re­tail chains such as Wal-Mart, Safe­way and Costco.

If ne­go­ti­a­tions break down, au­thor­i­ties fear that the re­gion could de­scend into the kinds of clashes be­tween pro­test­ers and po­lice that have re­sulted in dozens of in­juries and left gov­ern­ment build­ings and po­lice ve­hi­cles torched.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment, seek­ing to avoid more vi­o­lence-filled head­lines un­der­cut­ting its muchtouted ex­port sec­tor, may have agreed to sub­si­dize farm­worker salaries as a quick-fix so­lu­tion, la­bor, in­dus­try and eco­nomic ex­perts say.

Such an ar­range­ment, they say, would be un­prece­dented in re­cent Mex­i­can his­tory.

“The gov­ern­ment is des­per­ate be­cause the protests were very big and gen­er­ated great sym­pa­thy for the la­bor­ers in Mex­ico and be­yond,” said Raul Trejo De­lar­bre, a re­searcher at the Au­ton­o­mous Uni­ver­sity of Mex­ico.

The agree­ment, Trejo and other ex­perts said, is an ex­treme pro­posal with sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for the Mex­i­can econ­omy. Farm la­bor­ers as well as work­ers in other in­dus­tries would prob­a­bly press for sim­i­lar deals.

Farm­worker lead­ers in San Quintin said they plan to spread the news of their ground­break­ing achieve­ments to other re­gions, in­clud­ing Si­naloa, Mex­ico’s lead­ing agri­cul­tural ex­port state. A lead­ing busi­ness fig­ure in Baja Cal­i­for­nia called the pro­posal ab­surd in a re­cent in­ter­view with the Mex­i­can news­pa­per Mile­nio. “What if all busi­nesses and all the work­ers of Mex­ico asked for sub­si­dies” said Adrian Olea Mendivil, pres­i­dent of the Baja Cal­i­for­nia Com­merce Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil.

Farm­worker lead­ers have in­sisted on a daily wage of 200 pe­sos, about $13. Grow­ers, through their in­dus­try trade group, the Agri­cul­tural Coun­cil of Baja Cal­i­for­nia, haven’t budged from their of­fer of a 15% wage in­crease. Av­er­age daily wages ranged from $8 to $10 a day and had not been raised for years, ac­cord­ing to la­bor lead­ers.

The agree­ment calls for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate with grow­ers to of­fer more, and to make up the dif­fer­ence with fed­eral funds, as “close as pos­si­ble” to the 200-peso daily wage. The vague lan­guage — the pro­posal also does not spec­ify the du­ra­tion of the sub­si­dies — sug­gests that the gov­ern­ment could walk away from the deal, some ex­perts be­lieve.

Adding to skep­ti­cism about the deal is the am­bi­gu­ity sur­round­ing the in­dus­try’s po­si­tion. Af­ter the ten­ta­tive agree­ment was an­nounced, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the agri­cul­tural coun­cil said they did not sign on to the agree­ment and re­it­er­ated that they would not budge on the salary de­mands.

Many ob­servers have ques­tioned whether the agri­cul­tural coun­cil even rep­re­sents all of the grow­ers in the re­gion. Some of the agribusi­ness own­ers are po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful, hav­ing served in state or fed­eral posts.

Coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tives did not re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment.

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