About a year ago, Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, met with Martha Bárcena, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States.

Both were the first women to serve in their respective positions. And ultimately, both were driven to improve labor conditions for Mexican citizens working in the U.S.

A year after that initial meeting, the UFW and the Mexican government are collaborating to help thousands of dairy workers in the Pacific Northwest, including those not represented by the union.

Mexican government officials “have shown a great deal of interest in cooperating with us in solving problems,” Romero said during a news conference Tuesday.

The news conference was conducted primarily in Spanish with translation provided to the Yakima Herald-Republic by Erik Nicholson, UFW national vice president.

The first step in that collaboration came Tuesday when a delegation led by two Mexican senators, Rogelio Israel Zamora and Bertha Alicia Caraveo, visited the Yakima Valley to meet with dairy workers.

During individual conversations and a union meeting in Granger, workers shared stories of poor labor conditions that included nonpayment of wages, the inability to take required breaks and cases of sexual harassment and assault.

Romero said many of these complaints involve workers for farms that are part of the Northwest Dairy Association, a dairy cooperative whose products are sold through its marketing arm, Darigold. Co-op officials had been asked to participate in talks with the Mexican delegation, but they declined, Romero said.

Zamora and Caraveo said they had been informed of these issues in the past year, but hearing them firsthand from workers underscored the importance of finding solutions.

“We cannot do anything if we don’t know the real needs they have,” said Zamora.

Working with Mexican government officials is one avenue the UFW is pursuing to improve dairy worker conditions. The UFW has filed several cases of sexual assault and harassment with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The UFW is also involved in a bipartisan effort to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which aims to provide a more stable and legal workforce in several ways, including giving legal status to those who have worked in agriculture. With legal status, workers are likely to feel more secure in voicing complaints about working conditions.

The bill passed the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate.

“We’re trying to engage in different ways to bring a change; we’re not just on one track,” Romero said. “We’re looking for different ways to integrate all different kinds of stakeholders to whatever change we’re bringing about.”

Mexico has been the No. 1 export market for the U.S. dairy industry. In 2018, the U.S. exported nearly $1.4 billion in dairy products to Mexico — a 7 percent increase from the previous year and a 58 percent jump over five years, according to figures from the U.S. Dairy Export Council. About a quarter of all dairy exports in 2018 went to Mexico.

The council also notes that nearly

90 percent of Mexico’s dairy imports are from the U.S.

Both countries have ratified the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, which maintains open access to Mexico for U.S dairy products. In Mexico, the Senate of the Republic is the sole body to decide on trade deals.

Both senators noted there are provisions in the new agreement that create a panel that would hear worker complaints.

Zamora and Caraveo said they’re also interested in amending or creating new laws U.S. employers would have to follow when hiring Mexican citizens for farmworker jobs in the U.S.

“We need to be specific about what we need to do and how we (enforce policies) together,” Caraveo said.

The senators said that above all else, they want Mexican farmworkers in the U.S. — including those who are undocumented — to know their home country supports them.

Workers live in fear and are afraid to share their complaints, so the opportunity to share their stories with Mexican leaders was powerful, Nicholson said.

“It’s a profound experience for all of us,” he said.

The Mexican delegation’s visit continues Tuesday with a visit to Threemile Canyon Farms, a dairy farm in Boardman, Ore.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang