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Workers on Mexico’s Export Farms

November 19, 2019

About 6.5 million workers are employed in Mexico’s agricultural sector, including 3.5 million self-employed farmers and their family members. There are three million hired workers, including two million employed in Mexican states that produce farm goods primarily for Mexican consumers and a million in states that produce farm goods to export, primarily to the US.

The hired workers employed in Mexican agriculture earned an average 3,200 pesos ($165) a month in 2018. Hired workers in the six Mexican states with the highest shares of exported farm goods, Baja California, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Sonora, earned 4,200 pesos a month, while those employed in Mexican states with lower shares of farm exports earned 3,000 pesos a month.

The US imported $26 billion worth of farm goods from Mexico in 2018, including $14 billion worth of fruits and vegetables. US farm exports to Mexico were $19 billion in 2018, meaning that the US has an agricultural trade deficit with Mexico. Mexico supplies about half of the fresh fruit that is imported into the US and three-fourths of fresh vegetable imports.

In December 2014, the Los Angeles Times published articles that asserted Americans were eating the products of child and exploited labor when they consumed fruits and vegetables from Mexico. There were several reactions, including stepped-up government audits of export farms to ensure they were in compliance with labor laws and audits to ensure that farmers register their farm workers for the IMSS and Infonavit benefit programs and paid taxes on their workers’ wages; there was also pressure from US buyers to ensure that Mexican growers were in compliance with labor laws. The Mexican government sharply raised minimum wages in 2019.

We surveyed almost 2,700 hired workers employed on export farms in spring 2019 and found that most earn two to three times Mexico’s minimum wage of 103 pesos ($5.25) a day; fewer than five percent reported earning less than the minimum wage in 2019. Wages on berry farms are 15 percent higher than wages on vegetable farms, men earned about 15 percent than women (45 percent of workers), and workers who speak indigenous languages, a quarter of all workers, earned 10 percent less than other workers except in berries, where they earned the same wages.

The average age of 2,700 workers who were interviewed while working on the largest berry and vegetable farms that export to the US was 32, and these workers had an average 7.2 years of schooling. Their earnings gave their families incomes that were above the poverty line, meaning that the expansion of export agriculture is reducing poverty in Mexico.

One of the most surprising findings of the 2019 worker survey is that over 90 percent of workers on export farms reported that their employers enrolled them in the IMSS health care and pension system; only half of all Mexican workers are enrolled by their employers in IMSS. However, many farm workers reported that they did not have easy access to the services that IMSS should provide to covered workers, especially child care services.

Mexico’s fruit and vegetable exports are rising, and growers are recruiting more internal migrants from poorer areas of Mexico. Many of these migrants are indigenous, which means they have lower levels of education and are poorer: 72 percent of Mexicans who speak an indigenous language are poor, compared to 41 percent of non-indigenous Mexicans. There were no indicators of trafficking, and few examples of workers paying for jobs or being in debt to their employers.

Almost all workers on export-oriented farms are satisfied with their jobs and plan to return to their seasonal jobs next year. Workers report that higher wages and benefit coverage on export farms has spillover effects on friends and relatives employed on farms that produce commodities for Mexicans, forcing farmers producing for the domestic market to raise wages and improve benefits to attract workers.

Mexico exported $26 billion worth of farm goods to the US in 2018, including $14 billion worth of fruits and vegetables. Mexico has had an agricultural trade surplus with the US since 2014


Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.

Mexico had almost 7 million workers employed in agriculture in 2015, including almost 3 million hired workers

Mexico Labor Force, 2015
  Millions Share %
Civilian Labor Force 52.6  
  Growth 2010–15 0.7  
Men 32.7 62%
Employed 50.3 96%
Unemployed 2.9  
Sector: all employed Share %
  Agriculture 6.8 14%
  Industry 12.5 25%
  Services 31 62%
Sector: employees Share %
  Agriculture 2.9 43%
  Industry 9.7 78%
  Services 21.6 70%
Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.

Workers employed on Mexican export farms in spring 2019 earned more than the 3,100 peso minimum wage and 90 percent reported that their employers enrolled them in IMSS, but there was less access to IMSS benefits, especially child care

Commodities
Commodity Workers Monthly wage (pesos) Monthly wage ($)
Berries 1,426 7,234 379
Tomatoes 364 6,490 340
Bell peppers 495 6,366 334
Cucumbers 392 6,369 334
Total 2,677  
Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.
Demographics
  Workers Men Education
Demographics Interviewed Share Age percent years
Baja California 196 7% 30 72% 7.5
Colima 38 1% 35 42% 8.8
Guanajuato 316 11% 29 56% 8.8
Jalisco 678 24% 32 69% 8.2
Michoacán 654 24% 35 50% 7
Sinaloa 897 32% 33 46% 6.3
Total 2,779 100%  
Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.
Wages
Wages Monthly wage (pesos) Monthly male wage (pesos) Monthly femail wage (pesos) Male premium
Baja California 10,120 10,220 9,856 4%
Colima 6,047 6,805 5,496 19%
Guanajuato 6,419 6,227 6,661 -7%
Jalisco 7,261 7,330 7,108 3%
Michoacán 6,159 6,529 5,799 11%
Sinaloa 6,406 7,267 5,677 22%
Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.
Benefits
Benefits IMSS Infonavit Day Care Bonus Vacation
Baja California 97% 25% 1% 72% 61%
Colima 100% 70% 21% 89% 86%
Guanajuato 99% 47% 9% 98% 96%
Jalisco 94% 46% 10% 85% 77%
Michoacán 91% 35% 5% 65% 46%
Sinaloa 92% 20% 14% 86% 36%
Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.
Access to Benefits
Access to Benefits IMSS Infonavit Day Care Bonus Vacation
Baja California 89% 11% 1% 61% 46%
Colima 97% 55% 15% 82% 83%
Guanajuato 91% 11% 2% 92% 85%
Jalisco 79% 19% 4% 72% 58%
Michoacán 81% 15% 2% 58% 35%
Sinaloa 86% 10% 9% 80% 30%
Source: Escobar, Agustin, Philip Martin, Omar Starbis. 2019. Farm Labor in Mexico’s Export Produce Industry.