Cruelty-Free Produce?

Coalition of Immokalee Workers comes to Austin

Cruelty-Free Produce?

Visit any Austin supermarket, you’ll find produce labeled organic; eggs, free range. However, amid the profusion of claims, guarantees of good labor practices are few and far between. It’s true that it’s possible to buy Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. But when it comes to U.S.-grown produce, there are few certainties.

Most of America’s fresh tomatoes come from Florida. Until recently, those fields were a terrible place to work: Migrant laborers lived in poverty, worked long hours without breaks, and were subject to sexual harassment. Even worse, over the past decade, several large-scale human-trafficking and forced labor schemes involving tomato pickers have come to light. But thanks to the tireless efforts of the workers themselves, conditions have improved.

In 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed with the goal of combating abuses. At first, the CIW demanded better treatment from the tomato growers. However, they soon learned that the growers weren’t doing so well themselves. Because a small number of fast food and grocery chains dominate the market, producers are effectively at their mercy, and have no choice but to sell at the price those large buyers are willing to pay. The growers couldn’t necessarily afford higher wages.

The CIW refocused its efforts on the fast food industry. Their first target was Taco Bell in 2001. The “Boot the Bell” campaign called on consumers to boycott Taco Bell – and on universities to kick the chain off their campuses – until it agreed to buy tomatoes only from suppliers that complied by certain labor standards. Although it took years, Taco Bell eventually acceded to the CIW’s demands.

Since that first victory, 11 other buyers, including not only Burger King and McDonald’s but also Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, have become part of the Fair Food Program. Participants pay about a penny more per pound of tomatoes, and only buy from growers deemed by an independent auditor to meet the FFP’s code of conduct. Currently, about 90% of Florida tomato growers have agreed to implement the program on their farms. Whole Foods and Wal-Mart are in the process of debuting tomatoes bearing “Fair Food” stickers. (Whole Foods also has its own program, Whole Trade, that labels a variety of its produce free of certain labor violations.)

Nely Rodriguez, a member of the CIW, worked in the fields of Mexico before coming to Florida seven years ago. According to her, one of the key aspects of the program is that the CIW educates laborers on their rights and how to file a complaint if those rights are violated – a lack of complaints means nothing if people have no ability to voice them.

Unfortunately, not every big buyer has come on board. Wendy’s is alone among the five largest fast food companies in its continuing refusal to join the FFP. The corporation’s representatives argue that it doesn’t need to take part in the program, because it already buys from FFP growers. In response, the CIW says that Wendy’s claims can’t be verified, and that “there is no way to know if Wendy’s suspends its purchases from growers that violate farmworkers’ human rights, a commitment that represents the cornerstone of the program.”

Postcards addressed to Wendy’s CEO asking the company to “work with the CIW to ensure human rights and fair wages for tomato pickers” are available at Treasure City Thrift (2142 E. Seventh).

On Sunday, Nov. 23, at 2pm, members of the CIW and local supporters will gather for a “spirited, art-filled action” in the Wendy's parking lot (619 S. I-35).

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, at 6pm, Nely Rodriguez of the CIW and Claudia Saenz of the Student/Farmworker Alliance will discuss the Fair Food Program at the Women’s Community Center (1704 San Antonio St.).

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