The spokesperson for Mexico's recently formed International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry (AHIFORES) has urged the public to "be patient" when it comes to specific programs for the group, proclaiming concrete results for farmworker well-being will be seen in the long-term.
Mario Robles has been a difficult man to reach recently, as he spent the early part of this month traveling in Europe with a trade mission that visited the Netherlands and the world's biggest produce fair Fruit Logistica in Berlin, before coming back to Mexico for the group's official launch.
"The alliance's purpose is to increase good business practices in our fruit and vegetable industry, with an emphasis on social responsibility, the people who work in the operations. It does not have a focus on just the U.S. and Canada, but basically on undertaking practices that eliminate some vices and to absolutely stick to the rules of Mexican law when it comes to work and labor relations," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
Robles said the incipient group's key actions on a practical level will be to replicate the successes experienced in his home state of Sinaloa to improve the livelihoods of workers, their families and the community.
In Sinaloa itself, he highlighted an agreement reached a few years ago with federal agency Diconsa which was initially set up to provide basic services to the country's poorest populations. With this in mind, Sinaloa produce industry representatives reached out to the agency to address the issue of company stores and providing affordable products to workers.
That deal has since expired and as Robles works on a renewed deal that will be "wider with fresh initiatives" for the Sinaloa operation, he said negotiations were also underway with AHIFORES to implement the scheme in more produce-growing states.
"Through the alliance we will probably make arrangements with Diconsa but at a national level so that members of the alliance can have access to Diconsa programs, logically based on agreements reached with the grower associations," he said.
He added the same principle of mimicking Sinaloa's practices would apply when it came to addressing child labor.
"In 2007 we had around 15,000 kids working in the [Sinaloa] fields; that is minors of under 14 years of age, as at 14 you can work legally with the permission of your parents," he said.
"In that year we made a pact in all the zones, amongst all the growers here in Sinaloa, which basically said that growers promised not to submit to the pressure of parents for their kids to work.
"The situation was such that parents would show up to work, but on the condition that their children, as minors, could work too. If an agricultural company said, 'I don’t want to give your kids work', they would go to another farm and find work there."
He said the prevailing norm prior to that pact was that growers who did the right thing would end up without enough labor supply to harvest their farms.
"So the pact was made so that no complete family would be given work; just the parents. This was honored by the growers, and it brought about serious complications obviously because there were a lot of minors who we had to attend to by providing some kind of activity.
"So we had to build more daycare centers, more halls, more schools and sports spaces so the kids could have something to do."
When asked about whether AHIFORES could incorporate a third-party auditing element to its social responsibility program, Robles said the organization would adapt to situations in the future but for now would need to operate on a trust basis.
"The reason why we have met and promised to have good business practices, is that it's a commitment that the different organizations are willing to honor, without the need for anyone to supervise or certify whether they are doing it or not.
"It is a commitment they need to do, and the government is willing to work with us in that."