Driscoll Strawberry Boycott Flawed, Harms Laborers, Not Corporation

Cyrus Eosphoros, Columnist

This is the second part in a three-part series on consumption-centered activism in the U.S. The next section will be published in the April 17 issue of the Review.

On the way out of the town where I grew up, Todos Santos, the desert gives way to vast green fields and barns that are marked with the parent companies’ names. We grow tomatoes, basil and strawberries. And now, apparently, a new crop of U.S. boycotts against the corporation Driscoll’s. Workers back on my peninsula are striking for higher wages, but that’s less newsworthy than it sounds; strikes are a far more common element of Mexican business than anywhere else in North America.

The thing that makes this relevant is that people north of the border have decided to care. There are petitions against current wage practices, with varying qualities of grammar and accuracy of information. There’s also the obligatory protest method making headlines: People are clamoring for a boycott of one of the U.S.’s primary suppliers of fresh fruit.

Because decreased revenue is definitely the impetus that will produce the wage hike the workers themselves are striking for.

That kind of nuance is hard, though. It’s much easier for someone to read one article and proceed to drop a few more dollars on groceries, because they can afford to, in exchange for the warm, fuzzy feeling of conviction that they’re making a difference to some faceless brown people they couldn’t find on a map.

Not to say that the situation these workers are in isn’t hideous. There’s tremendous potential for abuse of authority against people who can’t afford to quit their job and have nowhere else to go, and it only takes one person to take advantage of that. The housing agricultural laborers are provided is unsanitary and badly maintained. Their pay is at the low end of a long-outdated minimum wage. But somehow, American coverage of this issue manages to exotify these things, even the simple economic facts.

The news and petition-writers want you to know that we’re looking at people making around $8 a day for double-digit hours of work. Mexican minimum wage is determined by the day, not the hour; it has also increased by around a dollar in the past half-decade, not accounting for inflation. The minimum wage of 2010 would have been around $5. Today’s is around $4.60.

One hundred and twenty pesos go a lot further than $8 would in America. Two pounds of tortillas come in at around 11 pesos, a whole chicken is 39, light bulbs cost 6. It’s a drastically inhumane wage and should still register as a product of almost cartoonish evil, but it’s far more complex than what the arbitrary American is likely to think when told “$8 a day.” And yet being able to really picture what that life looks like engenders less sympathy, not more.

I have a theory on that count: It stops looking like a tragedy and starts looking like a story. Let me tell you the plot. Vast numbers of people who qualify as unskilled laborers rely on jobs with a single megacorporation. They live in cheap, crumbling housing. Teenagers start working early because they can’t afford not to, even when they’re sacrificing their schooling to do it. Despite being paid poverty wages such that they end up needing charity and welfare to get by working full-time, even at more than minimum wage, these workers are in no position to take the risks of leaving that job for a better one. Superiors who know that also know they have a nearly unlimited opportunity to take advantage of any worker. If they strike for higher wages and look for support, they’re instead given calls for boycotts that will only give the parent corporation a new excuse for more layoffs.

Does that sound like a reasonable summary of the more detailed story I offered? Have I summarized the living conditions of agricultural workers on the Baja California peninsula adequately?

If so, that’s awfully strange. I was talking about Walmart.

Looking at the story of this kind of economic oppression, not just the pity-bait blurb, means considering that it’s not anywhere near as foreign as the language a single instance is being carried out in. Boycotts attempting to be civilian sanctions in favor of — against the wishes of — a nebulous concept of foreign lives are easy. All the consequences are neatly sealed off, and the things being protested against are black and white, good and evil.

It’s a tremendously appealing narrative: just by shifting around the way you spend money, you’re making a difference to the generically less fortunate. Confronting such issues on your home turf means the immediate consequences of such economic stunts are impossible to avoid. The people you’re supposed to be fixing everything for are speaking your language, walking on your streets. Silencing them on what they actually want and need is much harder if you get involved at all, easier if you ignore from the start; anyway, what if they’re ungrateful? What if they’re doing being poor wrong? Better to think about how tremendously lucky everyone in your line of sight is to be living in the U.S., where they don’t need your help the way generically poor brown people must.