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Picking & Packing for the North: Agricultural workers at Empaque Santa Rosa Chapter 6. Deborah Barndt An investigation of the deep and complex history of agriculture in Mexico. Globalization from Above : Empaque Santa Rosa in Context.

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picking packing for the north agricultural workers at empaque santa rosa chapter 6

Picking & Packing for the North:Agricultural workers at Empaque Santa RosaChapter 6

Deborah Barndt

An investigation of the deep and complex history of agriculture in Mexico

globalization from above empaque santa rosa in context
Globalization from Above: Empaque Santa Rosa in Context

“I’ve heard that the tomatoes go alotro/ado [to the other side]”

-Reyna Gomez, a 16 yr old Indigenous worker who came with her husband from the south to pick tomatoes for Empaque S.R. in the central western Mexican state of Jalisco.

  • Many terms are used to reference the United States: Al otro/ado(to the other side), al norte(north), afuera(outside), or aim(there)
  • The giant to the north(as it has been called) not only swallows up the majority of tomatoes produced in Mexico & directs Mexican agro-export production from primarily U.S.-based multinationals but also has drawn migrational workers across the border as cheap labor in American fields, for over a century
  • Whether working in Mexican fields or U.S. fields, these workers are picking tomatoes primarily shaped by and destined for northern markets.
  • A trend in migrational workers shows that many migrate to the U.S. seeking better wages and working conditions and migrate for many months out of the year to rich, productive regions of northern Mexico, the U.S. and even as far north as Canada
how did it come to this
How did it come to this?

“Why is it that people like Ramon can no longer make a living from their own land and must work instead where they own nothing and control nothing and where their only apparent future is to move on to work in yet some other alien and unfriendly land?”--Angus Wright asks in his investigation of the pesticide-related death of Indigenous migrational worker, Ramon Gonzalez

  • The history of agriculture in Mexico is complicated and has deeply woven and tangled roots connecting the land, chemicals, migration, racism, and sexism that exists within the system
  • January 1, 1994: implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement

NAFTA=the latest in a long series of neoliberal actions that exploited the Indigenous workers of Mexico as cheap labor while also marginalizing them as citizens and producers of the land.

Neoliberalism = a set of economic beliefs that subordinates all social and developmental considerations to the demands of private capital and the world market

  • Since the revolutionary struggles led by Zapata in the early 1900s for “Land or Liberty” there has been an ongoing struggle between two visions of the land:

A vision of the land and of agriculture that honors ecological integrity and local survival

A vision that privileges the needs of export markets and northern consumers

  • The Struggle is deeper than recent decades of global economic restructuring:

Since independence, Mexican presidents maintained development and agrarian policies that favored large commercial export-oriented industries, leaving the worst land for campesinos and their subsistence

post world war ii era
Post World War II era
  • Post WWII there is a contradictory dynamic
  • While the U.S.’s efforts to promote economic growth according to a western-style model were felt strongly in Mexico, there was a countervailing nationalist orientation rooted in the Mexican Revolution
  • Leaders promoted national pride(along with tercermundismo, or Third Worldism) and self-sufficiency even as the Mexican economy became increasingly entrenched in world markets
  • The dual structure of agricultural production deepened as agro-exports became central to the redefined Mexican economic plan
  • An asymmetrical pattern emerges between the north-south relations:

Northern countries supply: the inputs, extract the surpluses & provide the markets

Southern countries supply: the favorable climate, easy access to land, & cheap labor for production controlled by foreign interests

  • At the same time, agricultural surpluses from the north are dumped on Third World countries as cheap food or food aid which forces countries such as Mexico, formerly self-sufficient in food, to dismantle their national food programs because they can’t compete with the cheaper imports

Agro-exports are a source of foreign exchange to payoff national debts. Their risks have increased with the growth of the agro-export sector.

  • Contract farming is central to the multinational agribusiness strategy because it allows foreign companies to control the entire production process.
  • Farmers are required to:

--buy inputs(seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, even boxes) from outside Mexico

--provide foreign technical assistants who manage the technology and dictate the prices, marketing and distribution mechanisms without taking any of the risks of actually producing the food

Effects of NAFTA:

  • Permanent export-oriented model imposed on Mexico
  • Once self-sufficient in food, Mexico now imports more than one-third of its food needs
  • Only ones to benefit from this strategy of development are the multinational (foreign and national) corporations
empaque santa rosa primed for export
Empaque Santa Rosa: Primed for Export
  • Family business that was founded in the 1970s and, today, is run by the four sons of the founder
  • Empaque began small scale and is now a very large corporation with over $300 million in sales (1996).
  • Employs twelve thousand employees--90% are field-workers
  • Plants and harvests more than 6,000 hectares of field tomatoes and 80 hectares of greenhouse production
  • One of the few large companies to control the fruit and vegetable production in Mexico
  • Closely linked to North American financial & agro-industrial capital, its success depends on access not only to land but also to markets
  • Concentration and control of the land are clear: the largest companies comprise only 0.2 % of the agribusiness yet cover 4 % of the land, while 59 % are cultivating only 5 % of the land
  • Large domestic companies have become “global” by joining financial groups and setting up their own distribution centers not only in the largest markets (Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey) but in the U.S, Canada and Europe
  • Empaque Santa Rosa has its own trade center in the southern U.S. where it manages exports and imports not only of fresh produce but also of canned food
the nafta impetus
The NAFTA Impetus

“NAFTA is common sense. The guy with the best product, that has the best price, that has the best efficiency, will win. NAFTA leveled the playing field and said the best players play. Your government can’t protect you. The best players are those who have the best natural resources, the most efficient people.”-The head of Santa Rosa’s international operations

  • Santa Rosa was commended by U.S. officials for its leadership in preparing the ground for the implementation of NAFTA in central Mexico
  • Domestic producers were definitely at an advantage when the export market opened up
  • Following models of foreign companies and technicians, the success of Santa Rosa has been based on a rationalized use of both technology and labor (echoes of the McDonaldization of countries around the world)

In the name of “efficiency:”

  • ↑ investment in machinery and agrochemicals resulting in ↓ in wages and overall savings in water costs
  • ↑ in workers’ productivity due to technological advances (biogenetically engineered seeds that produce more homogenous ripening) as well as the speeding up of work
year round production workers and tomatoes follow the sun
Year round production: Workers and tomatoes follow the sun
  • Large agribusiness that take advantage of the diverse growing seasons within Mexico have been called girasols, or sunflowers, because they follow the sun
  • Because the company leases rather than owns most of the productive land (or subcontracts other small producers to take the immediate risks of production), its greatest resource is the ample supply of local campesinos (20%) and migrant farm workers (80%)
  • In total, Santa Rosa employs 12,000 temporary workers and 850 full-time workers making the temporary workforce as equally expendable as the land on which the tomatoes are produced
  • Santa Rosa operates with a “mining mentality” aimed at getting quick profits
  • In the 1980s, after several years of mono-cultural production with intensive agrochemical use, they left the region, when a mosquito plague struck that could not be controlled, forcing them to abandon the infected and depleted land, which led to falling profits. The white mosquito that destroyed the crops had deserted the mountainside for the fields, due to deforestation caused by clear-cutting for constructing crates to pack tomatoes for export.
  • Local residents have nicknamed these companies “grasshoppers,” a metaphoric critique of how companies “hop” on to the next fertile field, leaving behind a degraded environment and a community that has come to depend on the economic activity
  • Santa Rosa cultivates 2,550 hectares of tomatoes, with an annual production of 165,000 tons
  • It operates twelve wholesale bodegas, or stalls, in the food terminals of Guadalajara and Mexico City controlling much of the activity that goes on in the centralized markets. In Guadalajara, it owns a building with Del Monte Fresh Produce that has fifteen refrigerated rooms that have a capacity of storing up to 75 trailers worth of fresh produce.
  • Because tomatoes are highly perishable, they are usually not stored for longer than a day. When there is overproduction or while waiting for prices to rise, they are often gassed (with ethylene) before being shipped so they will ripen by arrival

Ethylene = Ethylene acts physiologically as a hormone in plants and is used as an anesthetic agent to hasten fruit ripening, as well as a welding gas. Ethylene is the most produced organic compound in the world and is a key component in Levinstein sulfur mustard, a chemical weapon agent. Ethylene can be conveniently produced in the laboratory by distilling absolute ethanol with an excess of concentrated sulfuric acid and washing the distillate vapor stream in an aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide to remove the sulfur dioxide contaminant

high tech production greenhouse production
High-Tech Production = Greenhouse production
  • Greenhouse production takes advantage of the accessible land, prevalent sun, and cheap labor and further controls plant growth through drip irrigation and some organic fertilizers.
  • Santa Rosa holds the majority of shares in a greenhouse operation: 60 Hectares of tomatoes grown 8 months out of the year, yielding 4x the amount possible in open field production
  • In 1997 the greenhouse operation exported 100 % of its produce to the U.S. and Canada for a value of U.S. $14 million
  • Technologies are imported from the most sophisticated to the simplest: seedling packs, fertilizers, machinery, computers that sort the tomatoes by size and color, boxes (8 to 12 million), plastic that covers the seedlings, gasoline, oil to move all the trucks, topsoil, sticks (20 million sticks), even the string that holds up every plant
globalization from below picking and packing for survival
Globalization from Below: Picking and Packing for Survival

“The story of tomato production in Mexico is told quite differently by the women who work at Santa Rosa as pickers and packers in the fields, packing houses, and greenhouses. From the perspective of the owners and managers, these workers are crucial in a labor-intensive agro-industry, seen primarily as factors in production, ready to be called into action when the seeds are to be planted or the tomatoes to be harvested and packed for export. Moving from a globalization-from-above to a globalization-from-below perspective, their stories make visible work that is often hidden from the rest of the world, and reveal some of the complexities and differences among women workers themselves.”

gendered fields
Gendered fields
  • The “feminization of labor” has been central to the development of agro-export economies such as Mexico
  • The tomato industry reveals that women entered the production process as packers after a U.S. Embargo in 1932 forced producers to improve their practices to compete with American producers
  • Women considered more “flexible” and “gentle” with the fragile fruit
  • Firms use gender ideologies to erode stable employment and worker rights where women are concerned
  • Markets characterized by large capitalist producers, such as Santa Rosa, have a more rigid sexual division of labor
  • Women’s participation has increased in recent years and since the mid-1990w, these “temporary-permanent” migrant workers have been predominantly female, 2/3 of them under 24 years old and a majority 15-19 years old
family wage economies
Family Wage Economies
  • The family as a unit is central to agricultural production
  • While small farms are run on family labor, campesino families depend on money being sent from migrating family members, and migrating families often offer several family members as salaried workers to agribusiness
  • While there is an international outcry about child labor in economies such as Mexico, the cyclical injustice is rationalized as the only way out for poor families

“The reality is that the Mexican minimum-wage salary is so low, that we are compelled by the campesinos themselves to give work to the whole family. If we had a better social assistance program in Mexico, if these children could be in school, protected, and cared for, it might be different.”

  • Especially after NAFTA and the ensuing peso crisis, the survival of families depends on combining the income of several family members and no longer follows the European model of family consumer economy that assumes the male’s individual wage would support his family
  • In 1981, just under two minimum-wage salaries were needed to cover the basic survival needs of a family of five…
  • By 1993, more than five family members’ salaries were needed
  • Desperation has pushed families to move from harvest—harvest, from countryside—cities and from formal sector work—informal economic activities creating the epitome of the “flexible” and “permanent temporary” labor force
  • Women workers reflect this constant movement for survival in their work and home lives
sexual division of labor at santa rosa
Sexual division of Labor at Santa Rosa:

Male Tasks

Clean and plow land w/ tractors

Maintain equipment

Manage production

Deliver seedlings

Guard fields

Hoe fields

Spread fertilizer

Mound furrows


Bore holes for stakes

Mix agrochemicals

Spray pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides

Farm manager


Pick tomatoes

Move boxes from fields to plant

Box makers

Carriers (by hand/electric lift)



Ticket boxes

Moves boxes to storage and/or to trucks

Company executives

Plant supervisor

Field production manager

Fumigation manager

Female Tasks

Plant and care for seedlings in greenhouses

Make 10-15 cm holes with stick/fingers

Plant seedlings

Prune plants

Tie plants to stakes



Pick tomatoes

Record production

Wash tomatoes

Select by size, color

Pack tomatoes

Put stickers on fruit



Preliminary Tasks







Reinforcing traditional notions about what is appropriate men’s and women’s work

where do these inequalities come from nature or nurture
Where do these inequalities come from?Nature or Nurture?
  • The criteria for the sexual division of labor are economic, political, and cultural
  • It is argued that men are better at the heavier jobs requiring physical strength, as well as the managerial jobs that require experience, access to technical information, and the initiative and ability to exert authority
  • It is assumed that women are more skilled at the intricate tasks (the famous “nimble fingers” mantra), are more efficient, productive, and responsible than men and are also preferred because they are paid lower wages and are seen to be more compliant
  • An executive reflects these gender ideologies as he tries to explain why 80 to 90% of the labor force in his packing plants is female:

“Women ‘see’ better than men; they can better distinguish the colors, and they treat the product more gently. In selection, care, and handling, women are more delicate. They can put up with more than men in all aspects: the routine, the monotony. Men are more restless, and won’t put up with it.”

  • These “explanations” don’t recognize the social construction of these gendered tasks and fail to fully recognize that women put up with exploitative conditions out of necessity, sacrifice, and a commitment to feed their families—not because they are naturally disposed to possess these qualities
  • Socialization as girls: tasks that require quick movement and dexterity, delicate treatment and highly developed motor skills have been learned by women over centuries, transmitted from one generation to another and continually reinforced by the interlocking systems in place
  • Gender dynamics are not the only oppressive systems effecting these women:

--Historical and structural inequalities based on class, race and ethnicity, age and marital status

--Uneven development between cities and the countryside, between the northern and southern regions of Mexico, and between the three NAFTA countries

company girls
“Company girls”
  • Division of tasks within tomato production have evolved over the decades (indeed centuries) to reflect and reinforce institutionalized classism, racism, and ageism
  • Santa Rosa has followed hiring practices, conscious or not, that isolate and pit workers against each other
  • Women who sort and pack tomatoes for Santa Rosa are drawn from two sources: local girls living in town and young women hired permanently by the company and moved from site to site, harvest to harvest—these women are the most privileged and are called “company girls”
  • Company girls live together in a woman-centered temporary home where they make meals together, share beds—a new form of family is constructed by the demands of the company
  • It is beneficial to the company to move these ‘families’ of women from harvest to harvest than to train new workers at each site

Yolanda, Sorter

  • “I’m twenty-one and have been working for Santa Rosa for 6 years. My father was a manager at the packing plant in Sinaloa, and I began working there during schol vacations. I liked packing work better than school. The atmosphere is different; it’s more fun, and you can make money.
  • I came here from Sicaloa and share an apartment with my mother, sister, and brother-in-law. He works in the Santa Rosa office and gets special living expenses. I earn almost one thousand pesos ($200) a week. I’m saving money for a house I’m building in Sinaloa.”
  • Juana, Packer

“I completed grade 5 in Sinaloa, and began working when I was fourteen, accompanying my mother who was working in a packing plant there. I’m thirty-seven years olf now. I’ve been following the harvests for twenty-three years. I like this work; I’m still here.

We are brought from Sinaloa with all expenses paid; the company covers the costs of transport, food, and once here, we get a house with a stove, beds, mattresses. Out house is close to the plant, and we share it with sixteen other workers. In the end, we’re all a family, those of us who are here.

I usually get up at five to bather, prepare food, and leave some dinner ready, so that when we come back at 1 pm, all we have to do is warm it up.

We go from here to the Santa Rosa plant in Sinaloa, and from there we go to San Quintin, Baja California, and then back to Sinaloa—every year we make the round. The houses in Baja California and Sinaloa are much better: there’s a social security clinic right in the plant, a chapel, washing machines and 54 spacious rooms, two women wo a room. They even have teachers for kindergarten and primary school for the kids.”


Differences between these two women are apparent in that Juana sends her money back to her family and Yolanda saves hers to build herself a home

  • Those women who do not marry and leave the job, become virtually wedded to the company, with no time of space for creating their own lives—moving from harvest to harvest each season
  • Sorters & Packers make 3x as much field workers and enjoy better working and living conditions, but are often required to work much longer hours—12 hours or more per day, 6 or 7 days a week in peak season
  • One woman recalls working until 3:30 am and there were reports that the packers were fed amphetamines to keep them awake

Hierarchy of skills & treatment between sorting and packing:

Sorters have to sign in, packers don’t

Sorters have to stand all the time, packers can sit on wooden boxes

Sorters start at 9, packers at 10

Sorters are paid by the hour, packers are paid by the box

  • At 33 cents a box, a packer might average 200-500 boxes a day = 66-150 pesos = $13-$30 a day
  • A sorter, earning 5 pesos/hr would average 35-60 pesos = $7-$12 a day
working conditions benefits
Working conditions/benefits
  • Male workers are still the most privileged: when workers go to the office to get their weekly pay, there are three lines: one for sorters, one for packers, and one for the men
  • Limited benefits:

No paid vacations (only full-time employees, mainly men, do)

No formal training offered; women learn by watching/having someone (perhaps a relative or friend) show them how to do the work

No orientation in the use of the equipment or the chemicals (even though women reported health and safety problems associated w/ the work)

“People get sick from the wax that’s put on the tomato; it makes the skin on their hands peel.”

Hand washing is done to protect the tomato, not the workers

….The appearance of the tomato is in some ways more important that the health of the workers….


“If gender discrimination is entrenched in the tasks offered women workers, racism is manifested against the Indigenous migrant workers who are brought in packed trucks by contractors, w/o certainty of getting work and w/ even worse living and working conditions than local campesinos. Housed in deplorable hits, w/o water, electricity, stores, or transport, they come as families to work in the fields and move from harvest to harvest. The women bear the brunt of this lack of infrastructure—cooking and washing, taking care of kids(even while working in the field), and dealing w/ their own exhaustion and the poor health engendered by the condition of extreme poverty. Because their own regions offer even less opportunity, they are forced to endure these jobs and the racist treatment built into them.”