Replacing Mexican workers in Mexico

Dan Grech Aug 11, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: This is a story you probably think you know. It’s about immigration. Employers are looking for cheap labor, so they hire undocumented workers coming up from the south. But we’re not talking about the United States here. From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace’s Dan Grech reports.

DAN GRECH: 69-year-old Jose Antonio Ventura keeps a steady rhythm as he hacks brush with a machete. He’s spent the past 54 years earning his living with this 22-inch Colima blade.

Ventura is from Guatemala, but he’s cleared coffee plantations all across southern Mexico.

JOSE ANTONIO AVENTURA [translator]:“I come to these places because my life companion died and my children theya€™re all grown. So I am alone. I’m poor and there’s not a lot of work in Guatemala. So I am like a lot of people who go to the United States and I stay to work.”

Aventura can clear an acre an hour. For that backbreaking work he earns 55 pesos a day, about $5. Not much, but double what’s he’d get back home.

Each year hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan migrants cross the border into Chiapas, Mexico. Some 100,000 are turned back each year.

It’s a rainy afternoon at the coffee plantation. Of the 200 workers sitting out the storm, only three are from Chiapas. Most locals travel north to industrial centers like Mexico City and Monterrey.

Others sneak across the US border where they find similar work at 10 times the pay.

As they leave, poor Guatemalans hungrily take the jobs that are left behind. It’s a chain of poverty, as one desperate population replaces another.

Mexico offers few legal protections for these workers, making them easy prey. Migrant areas are rife with gangs and even cops who rip off migrants.

Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario is author of “Enrique’s Journey,” the story of one Central American boy’s harrowing trip through Mexico and into the United States.

SONIA NAZARIO: “The Mexican government talks about how they want the United States to open their arms to more American citizens, and yet Central American immigrants are horribly abused by the authorities, among others. They certainly are not welcomed with open arms.”

She says the rapes and robberies have gotten so bad in Chiapas that many migrants choose to pass through rather than work here.

NAZARIO: “They feel that if they’re going to do that kind of backbreaking work, they might as well do it in the United States.”

Olga Sanchez runs a shelter for those who don’t make it. Every night her son serenades migrants who lost their limbs when they tried to hop a freight train heading north.

Sanchez says workers prefer to risk their lives on the train rather than work in farms in Chiapas.

OLGA SANCHEZ [translator]: “There are a lot of thieving employers who hire migrants and don’t pay them for their work.”

She describes a Guatemalan boy who recently arrived at the shelter. He’d broken several bones after a fall at a nearby coffee plantation. The owner left the boy at the entrance to the hospital without paying him for three weeks of work.

SANCHEZ [translator]:“Migrants are robbed here in plain sight.”

Farm owner Eusebio Ortega pays his workers $6 a day and offers them lined-up milk crates to sleep on. He’s pretty much given up on hiring Mexican workers to pick his mango trees, but nowadays he can barely hold on to Guatemalans.

EUSEBIO ORTEGA [translator]:“They come here practically fleeing the situations that prevail in Central America, of guerilla fighting, of insecurity, of no work. They come, they work a month or two to save up some money, and from here they continue on.”

Ortega says there are few workers left, and he can’t pay the kind of wages that would convince them to stay.

In Mexico, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

A Mexican worker at a coffee plantation near the Guatemalan border. Out of 200 workers there, just three are Mexican. The rest are from Guatemala.

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