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San Diego Students, Activists Plan To Protest Major Berry Supplier

Baja California farmworkers sign agreement with state and federal officials, May 13, 2015.
Baja California governor's office
Baja California farmworkers sign agreement with state and federal officials, May 13, 2015.

Students at San Diego City College and other activists plan a protest of the major berry supplier Driscoll’s on Saturday, saying they want to raise awareness about the allegedly inhumane treatment of Mexican farmworkers who harvest its berries.

The protests come about a year after fruit and vegetable growers – including those that sell berries to Driscoll’s – promised to increase pay for farmworkers in San Quintin, an agricultural valley about 200 miles south of San Diego in Baja California.

Gloria Gracida, a spokeswoman for the farmworkers, said most San Quintin farmworkers are still earning the equivalent of less than $1 an hour. She said promises made by growers during last spring's negotiations with the Mexican government were never kept.


“(The food) is the product of exploitation and modern slavery,” said Gracida, who will be traveling to San Diego from San Quintin for the protests, as well as to discuss the working conditions of San Quintin farmworkers at Centro Cultural de la Raza at 6 p.m. on Friday. She said farmworkers want higher wages and a union contract.

Driscoll's executive vice president Soren Bjorn told KPBS that the company is not standing in the way of farmworkers who want to unionize, and denied allegations that farmworkers are mistreated at the farms where it purchases berries.

"What Driscoll's and Driscoll's growers do goes well beyond what is the norm or average in the region and Mexico in general," Bjorn said in a telephone interview. "We've always operated with that philosophy in Mexico."

He said activists are using Driscoll's to push their agenda because the brand is well-known, not because the company is actually responsible for any misconduct.

Driscoll's obtains 80 percent of its Baja California berries from BerryMex, a supplier that raised wages to 20 percent higher than the agreed-upon minimum of 180 pesos (about $10) a day, Bjorn said. All of the other growers that supply Driscoll's pay farmworkers at least 180 pesos a day, he added. The daily minimum wage in Mexico is 73 pesos (about $4).


"We set a very high bar," he said, adding that the company helped negotiate a recent change in Mexican law that allows social security payments to remain in communities that make them so that benefits can go toward the farmworkers of compliant growers.

He said Driscoll's wants to help improve San Quintin's infrastructure – schools, roads and clean water pipes.

"We really think that's where we can use our influence much better, rather than going down to our growers and dictating to our growers a different wage structure that does not necessarily guarantee that the underlying issues in the region get addressed," he said.

Activists said they hope the protests will inspire Driscoll’s to pressure its growers to further raise wages for farmworkers, but Bjorn said that's not going to happen. Farmworkers argue that although Driscoll's growers pay more than double Mexico's minimum wage, the value of the U.S.-based company's profits should be better distributed through the supply chain in Mexico.

The organizations participating in the protests are TAINH and MEChA from San Diego City College, as well as the independent group Raices sin Fronteras.

“We don’t want the U.S. to stop purchasing their produce, but we do want the San Quintin people to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Margarita Diaz, a student at San Diego City College.

The first Saturday protest will take place at 11 a.m. in front of the H Street Costco in Chula Vista. The second protest will be at the University Avenue Whole Foods in San Diego at 3 p.m.