The phrase “social responsibility” is gaining major traction as a foundation of west Mexico’s sustainability efforts, according to growers, shippers and industry marketing agents.

“One of the elements of sustainability is social responsibility in how you treat your workers, and that is one thing that is really growing among Mexico’s commercial produce farms,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz.

“They recognize that in order to be a viable source into the U.S. and to Europe and Asia, where they’ve started sending a lot of produce, you have to have something in place which shows we treat your workers fairly and pay them a fair wage so they can take care of their families,” he said.

Wages have been on the rise in west Mexico, which may be news to many people in the U.S., Jungmeyer said.

“People generally don’t see it on this side of the border, but labor has been an issue down south,” he said. “Being competitive as a company has become tougher, as far as how do you attract the right kinds of labor and keep it.”

Living conditions have improved as well, Jungmeyer said.

“You’re seeing a lot more incentives to make sure their kids are going to school,” he said. “And, by and large, as labor has risen there over the last couple of years, which it has, having employees that understand your business and understand what you do become more valuable to you, and trying to retain that employment gets even tougher.”

Mexican growers are dealing with tight labor supplies, just as their U.S. counterparts are, Jungmeyer said.

“There have been labor shortages down there over the last couple of years and it’s definitely become more competitive, and certainly out of the Culiacan area,” he said.

Farther south, workers are a bit easier to find, although the problem stems across all of Mexico’s growing regions, Jungmeyer said.

“As you move further south, obviously, the job market is tougher in the south part of Mexico than it is in the north because of the manufacturing that goes on in the north,” he said. “In the south they don’t struggle with it quite as much as in the north. But it’s something you’re continually looking at.”

Worker issues are gaining priority among Mexico’s producers, said John McDaniel, sales manager with Nogales-based Meyer Tomatoes LLC.

“The cost is going up. It’s getting more difficult every year to go to work in the fields,” McDaniel said.

Growers can’t delay in finding help, he added.

“You have to get people early,” he said. “The growers need to have the people through the whole season, so you have to hire people and pay them in order to have them when you need them, or somebody else will take them. A lot of them are going south because there are more jobs, with agriculture being all year-round.”

The concept of keeping workers by treating them well is not new, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing at Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego.

“We always say we have a three-legged stool as part of our business plan: sustainability, social responsibility and food safety,” he said. “I challenge any other companies in the U.S. to come down and take a look at what we’re doing.”

Social responsibility is a business necessity, said Steve Yubeta, vice president of sales with Nogales-based Farmer’s Best International LLC.

“That’s just been a trend that’s been happening not just this year but something we’ve been working on for quite some time,” he said, referring to worker conditions.

“Some of our ranches are remote from big cities. We’ve installed clinics and day care centers. It’s almost like a small little town. In our main growing area, I think we’ve got 5,000 to 6,000 people, so you’ve got to bring up a lot of necessities to make sure they’re taken care off.”

Aaron Quon, greenhouse category director for the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group, said his company’s Mexico-based partner, Divemex SA, which has operations in Culiacan and Etzatlan, has a multipronged sustainability program for workers.

“Divemex has long been known for its concern for worker welfare and commitment to supporting the communities surrounding its growing facilities, earning social responsibility accolades including the esteemed Empresa Socialmente Responsable from El Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía in 2007,” Quon said.

“Over the last half decade, Divemex has worked to address the more critical issues concerning the quality of life of its staff. Divemex pays twice the government stipulated minimum wage, and also provides paid vacation, maternity, bereavement and sick leave. On-site heath care and child care services are also provided, as well as education opportunities.”

Divemex recently hired Karla Osuna as philanthropy and social responsibility specialist, Quon said.

“She connects the grower with international programs and foundations to help migrant people, and also seeks out opportunities to increase Divemex’s efforts to support workers and others in the community.”