The three Law School students who landed in Mexico City last March had spent months preparing for the fact-finding mission they hoped would help curb violence and discrimination against women in the Mexican agriculture industry.
Alli Hugi, ’18, Eian Katz, ’18, and Marcela Barba, ’19, all students in the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, had learned about the abuses faced by women on agricultural farms, the ineffectiveness of laws meant to protect them, and the power dynamics that often hinder collective action. They researched human rights standards and developed outlines and tools for conducting interviews. They even traveled to Immokalee, Florida, in November to meet with a worker-based human rights organization that had developed an innovative consumer-based model for protecting farmworkers.
But it wasn’t until the students arrived in Mexico and began their in-person interviews with government officials, international agency and nonprofit workers, and academics—meetings they conducted almost entirely in Spanish, a language all three speak—that a more nuanced picture began to emerge. They learned about the pervasiveness of physical and sexual violence on Mexican farms, not just from superiors but from other workers. They heard about the female workers who covered their entire bodies in the hot sun to avoid attracting the attention of male coworkers, the ways in which wages were wrongly cut or withheld, violence many were experiencing in the home, and the long walks many workers took just to find water—often dirty water—to drink. They also learned about the tangle of laws and jurisdictional issues that made enforcement and legal remedies an untenable option for most.
“Mexico has these well-crafted laws that seem to provide really good substantive protections, but after talking to government workers and especially the NGOs, we saw how little access farmworkers have to any type of legal recourse,” Hugi said.
Added Katz: “There are actually so many laws and so many agencies that are tasked with enforcing these laws, that the responsibility is too diffuse—it becomes easy for any particular government actor to pawn off the responsibility onto someone else. For example, there are 13 different agencies involved in the enforcement of one of the foundational Mexican laws on this subject, and it’s not really clear how they fit together.”
This was the core of the students’ work: methodically documenting the conditions and legal gaps in a report that advocacy organizations in Mexico and globally can use to improve protections and accountability for violence and abuse of female farmworkers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for instance, has combatted human rights abuses in US agriculture through a successful consumer-driven model in which major retailers and restaurant chains agree only to work with “Fair Food Program” farms in exchange for a certification assuring customers that their produce has been ethically sourced. CIW’s campaign has worked because the group was able to document abuses and bring the public gaze into the farms. IHRC’s human rights reporting is aimed at improving conditions on Mexican farms and aiding efforts to improve access, transparency, and accountability.
“There are some reports on the abuse of female farmworkers in Mexico—and we know that in similar contexts this sort of abuse is common—but we don’t know the full extent of the problem,” said Claudia Flores, a clinical professor and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic. “Farms in Mexico are often inaccessible and largely unregulated, and female workers are understandably reluctant, often afraid, to report instances of abuse or exploitation. The clinic’s report contributes to efforts to address violence against women in the work place in Mexico by providing an assessment and analysis of the employment and social conditions that make women vulnerable to gender-motivated abuse.”
Originally, the students had hoped to interview female farm workers themselves, even working with fine arts students to create images that would make it easier to discuss concepts like sexual harassment. Access proved difficult and dangerous, however, and the students instead spent their time in Mexico City and Morelia, the capital of the Mexican state of Michoacán, interviewing government officials, policy advocates, nonprofit workers, and scholars.
Female agriculture workers, the students learned from these experts, sometimes bring sons and daughters to the fields and then work extra hours to ensure that every member of the family meets the quotas required to collect wages. Wages are often withheld for a variety of reasons, and women typically earn less than men. Students heard reports of involuntary servitude and unsanitary housing, food, and water.
“In some cases, there isn’t water near the farm so they must walk really far just to drink,” Barba said. “And then they must drink the same water in which they bathe.”
Collective bargaining is allowed under Mexican law, the students said, but agricultural unions are often compromised by political interests and fail to protect workers. Citizens tend not to trust the government or employers, and women rarely report abuse or discrimination through formal channels. An overwhelming majority of the violent crimes against women that are reported to officials are never fully investigated or prosecuted.
“There were very few people we talked to who knew of any company-specific mechanisms for reporting,” Hugi said, adding later that a fear of retribution also keeps women from speaking up.
What’s more, violence against women, including high levels of femicide, is so prevalent that it is often viewed as a fact of life—something that simply must be endured, students said.
“People would say things like, ‘If a woman says she was abused, people will tell her she’s lucky to have a job,’” Katz said,
Added Barba: “Until it’s internalized that these conditions are not okay, it will be hard to have real change.”
The students hope their report will play a part in bolstering existing strategies and building the awareness needed to create change.
“People are trying to do studies on violence against women in agriculture, and people acknowledged that this is a really big problem,” Hugi said. “But at the same time there were not a lot of government or civil society resources structured toward it.”