Three recommendations for supporting internal migrant workers in Mexico

Three recommendations for supporting internal migrant workers in Mexico

Ben Brewer


Photo of participants wearing masks, seated at tables during a roundtable discussion

To address the exploitation of internal agricultural migrant workers and identify possible collaborations to improve their conditions, IREX’s Ambulantes program held a press conference and roundtable discussion on March 23, 2023 in Mexico City, Mexico. These events were cohosted with Ambulantes program partners Centro de Acompañamiento a Migrantes (CAMINOS), Fomento Cultural y Educativo, and Centro de Estudios en Cooperación Internacional y Gestión Pública (CECIG).

During the roundtable discussion, speakers from partner organizations, academia, and non-governmental organizations identified potential policy changes and discussed working together to improve internal migrant conditions. At the press conference, speakers discussed the illegal recruiting practices, exploitative conditions, and security risks that internal migrant workers currently face.

The roundtable included:

  • Key stakeholders who are working towards fostering safer migration in Mexico, including Fundación Avina, Oxfam México, and Polaris Mexico, and
  • Civil society organization partners, migrants, local authorities, academics, and staff from international nongovernmental organizations.

The press conference included:

More than 20 journalists who published stories in La Jornada, La Prensa, and SemMéxico.

During these events, speakers shared three recommendations (below) for stakeholders who are seeking to end migrant laborer exploitation in Mexico.

Why Ambulantes?: The risks and dangers internal migrants face

There are an estimated 2.3 million people who have migrated within Mexico (i.e., internal migration) to work in agriculture. Many of these workers are from Indigenous communities, as evidenced by 24% of these migrants speaking an indigenous language—three times higher than the national average. Most of these workers come from southern Mexican states (e.g., Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz) and migrate towards the center and north of the country (e.g., Sinaloa, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi). Families, including children, commonly participate together in this migration and labor.

The migrant workers and their families face many risks and dangers throughout the migration process, including during the time before the migration journey begins and after it ends. For example, some migrant workers interviewed as part of the Ambulantes program described recruiting practices and work environments with characteristics of human trafficking. Additionally, several interviewees described the presence of organized crime and prevalent drug sales at ranches where they worked, and some female migrants shared that they had experienced physical or sexual abuse while migrating or at the jobsite.  

The aim of IREX’s Ambulantes program, an 18-month program launched in 2021, is to provide support for these migrants during their “first mile,” which is the period when prospective migrants and their families are deciding to seek and/or accept employment and prepare for their journeys. To better position agricultural workers to have safer migration journeys and be less vulnerable to labor exploitation, the Ambulantes program:

  • Provides information about migration to migrant workers and their families;
  • Supports trusted local partners, who in turn support and advocate for migrants;
  • Documents shifts in labor migration trends and available services to identify actionable insights that can inform future interventions; and
  • Facilitates dialogue with civil society, government, media, and others to amplify the learning from these activities and drive meaningful reforms.

During the roundtable discussion and press conference, the Ambulantes program partners presented the main findings gathered from interviews conducted with migrants from Oaxaca and Veracruz, Mexico as well as the testimony of workers and local authorities from Indigenous migrant communities that have high rates of migration. The findings from these interviews and the discussion during the events informed the following recommendations.


1. Prioritize sharing information about labor rights and risks to communities who are likely to migrate. Stakeholders should prioritize ensuring that migrant communities have a robust understanding of their rights as laborers, what steps the migrants can take if these rights are violated, and how migrant workers can decrease their own risks of facing exploitation.

This is a pressing issue because in migration communities, migrants are often unaware of what labor practices are abusive — putting these workers at increased risk of facing this abuse, including being victims of human trafficking.

Ambulantes started this communication effort by sharing information on safe migration practices in migrants’ origin communities. The program has aimed to share this information with hard-to-reach communities and communities with varying levels of literacy. In an effort to better reach these at-risk communities, Ambulantes shares this information in a variety of modalities, including radio, murals, and during community assemblies.

Juan Jose Lavaniegos, Director of partner Fomento, shared that prior to the work of Ambulantes, internal migration to ranches “was not referred to as ‘trafficking,’ but simply as ‘work’.” Ambulantes brings attention to the fact that recruitment and conditions in ranches regularly violate labor laws. Further, Ambulantes has revealed cases with characteristics of trafficking in which people who leave ranches are not paid or face retaliation from organized crime groups.

2. Support local authorities to reinforce safe migration practices. Fostering relationships with local governmental authorities while continuing to leverage relationships with civil society authorities (including those in religious organizations) is crucial in order to access at-risk communities and to drive conversations around safe migration. Community authorities are concerned with the security and well-being of their communities yet often do not have the information or tools to effectively support outgoing migrants.

Ambulantes partners have built these relationships by assisting local municipal agents (many of whom serve voluntarily) with information on migrant destinations, labor conditions, and specific risks. Through this support, we have seen how authorities can raise these issues in community assemblies and enact measures—such as requiring recruiters to share the names and destinations of those leaving the community—which may help to locate missing migrants. (Information about migrants’ locations is often lacking because migrants themselves do not always know their destination during the start of their journey.)

Collectively, local authorities can advocate for municipal-level policy change to improve conditions that migrants experience at the beginning of their migration journey.           

3. Ensure staff at civil society organizations and other partner organizations are appropriately trained to reduce risks they face. As discussed above, Ambulantes partners aim to increase awareness of these risks and share information around destinations and strategies which migrants have used to protect themselves. However, the support civil society organizations provide for migrant workers disrupts the informal, often exploitative, nature of the relationship between employers, recruiters, and workers, which puts the staff of these organizations at risk. 

In response to these risks, many civil society organizations have found ways to approach recruiters and employers cautiously and in coordination with other local organizations to reduce the risk of retaliation. To support these efforts, Ambulantes staff engage with partners to evaluate risks both in their own communities and outside of their regions and to train and prepare their staff to better avoid and protect themselves from security threats.

Next steps for Ambulantes & other stakeholders: Multi-actor advocacy

While Ambulantes has made strides supporting safer migration at the local level, discussion during the events in March revealed a need for multi-actor advocacy, which could have a greater impact on labor policy at the state and national levels and help break down the long-term power structures that have exacerbated these issues. A coalition of international non-governmental organizations and academics working on these issues and informed by migrants and community authorities may have greater capacity to influence policy than they would working alone.

Roundtable discussion participants also identified specific actions to prioritize in next steps, they include:

  • Demanding increased and transparent labor inspections;
  • Enforcing minimum salary legislation;
  • Establishing gender pay equality;
  • Ensuring migrant workers receive official contracts and social security benefits;
  • Providing access to education for accompanying children of migrants; and
  • Ensuring accessible health care is available for migrants.

Ambulantes partners have shared information specific to remote areas of Oaxaca and Veracruz; however, the need for safe migration journeys and the challenges migrant workers face are present in communities across Latin America. By highlighting details of the conditions and the perspectives of internal migrants in one region, IREX’s Ambulantes program aims to make and support change in Mexico with the hope that doing so will also provoke change throughout the region.