The use of forced and child labor that persists in some regions of Mexico threatens to block agricultural exports to the United States, warns economist Herminio Blanco, president of IQOM, an international trade consultancy.
In its last biannual report on the subject, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) named 12 Mexican products in which forced and/or child labor is involved.
The DOL identified child labor practices in the production of green beans, coffee, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, onions, poppies, pornography, sugar cane, and tobacco, and that both forced and child labor are used in the production of chile peppers and tomatoes, Mexico’s largest export crops to the United States.
With election season in the United States beginning in earnest as well as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) taking effect on July 1, the United States could impose import sanctions on Mexican products that involve forced or child labor.
“The United States Customs Commissioner can stop a product and the criteria it would use are not clearly defined,” Blanco warned. The responsibility would lie with the Mexican exporter and the supply chain to demonstrate that the product in question is free from forced or child labor.
For example, regarding tomatoes, Mexico’s chief agricultural export, the DOL report is clear. “According to media reports, NGOs and the U.S. State Department, there are hundreds of victims of forced labor who work to produce tomatoes. Many of these victims report having been recruited by intermediaries, called enganchadores, who lie to workers about the nature and conditions of work, wages, hours and the quality of living conditions,” the document states.
The DOL report says that cases of forced labor occur both in commercial tomato plantations and on small farms in states such as Baja California, Coahuila, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí and Sinaloa.
Particularly affected are indigenous agricultural workers in the impoverished regions of central and southern Mexico who are vulnerable to forced labor in the agricultural sector due to low levels of education, language barriers and discrimination.
Under the USMCA, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada can seize imports from any region of the world that are produced using forced labor or child labor.
In the United States, the legislation empowers the Customs and Border Protection office to initiate an investigation against a company if a complaint, which may be anonymous, is received that the product being imported is produced by forced labor at any stage of the supply chain.
“Intelligence that we have in Washington from our office tells us that some complaints are emerging there along with potential cases that will begin once the treaty enters into force,” said Eugenio Salinas of Mexico’s Confederation of Industrial Chambers (Concamin).
In a videoconference earlier this month, Salinas said that Mexican government and the private sector should take this opportunity to prepare to face these possible charges, which he assured are unfounded.