Industry self-monitoring not the answer to protect farm workers supplying Walmart

Mexico has called out Walmart for the deplorable labour conditions at Mexican farms it uses to supply its produce. Walmart is North America’s largest importer of Mexican fruits and vegetables. Recently, reports surfaced that documented mistreatment of workers at the farms that supply the giant multinational retailer, including shoddy dormitory facilities, and overcharging workers for food and basic necessities at on-site labour camp stores.

The announcement comes after a new directive from a Mexico industry agency overseeing the agriculture sector. In the wake of the charges, Walmart has now announced plans to beef up its inspection system of its suppliers. Walmart maintains that for years it has had a team of its own inspectors overseeing its suppliers and visiting farms. Walmart has pledged to expand its system, but that does not include contracting third-party, independent inspectors. Their current system in Mexico is similar to the self-regulated inspection system Walmart used with its suppliers prior to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Walmart continues to balk at signing the Bangladesh Accord which would oblige them to use independent, third-part inspectors of their Bangladesh suppliers.

So will changes announced by Walmart in Mexico actually translate into life-changing improvements for Mexican agriculture workers?

"The issue of agriculture workers' rights and living conditions are not new. Companies like Walmart are feeling the pressure of the educated consumer – specifically concerns about an unregulated food industry, or should I say self-regulated," says Agriculture Workers Alliance National Coordinator Stan Raper. "Increase regulation and legislative protections and enforcement is the answer, not more industry self monitoring and un-enforced standards."

“Agriculture operations, including Walmart’s contractors, should be subject to third-party monitoring systems that utilize surprise or multiple inspections annually, interviewing workers to get a clearer, unbiased picture of labour conditions,” says Brother Raper. “UFCW Canada has issued numerous recommendations to the federal and provincial governments in our Annual Report on the Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada, and I would argue these recommendations would also work in Mexico.”

UFCW Canada and the Agriculture Workers Alliance provide much-needed services and support to the more than 40,000 migrant agriculture workers who come to Canada annually. UFCW Canada also has a number of mutual assistance pacts with Mexican states and civil society agencies to provide Mexican migrant workers with information about their labour rights while working in Canada.