An explosive series in the L.A. Times by Richard Marosi recently chronicled the horrific conditions that farmworkers face in Mexico, placing some of the blame on American supermarkets that buy billions of dollars of Mexican produce annually — no questions asked.
Supermarkets and their buyers all have codes of conduct intended to prevent abuses of workers in their supply chains. Supermarkets demand that suppliers sign them, but do almost nothing to ensure their enforcement.
In Florida, a very different story is unfolding in fields that compete directly with Mexican ones. Farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) have taken on retail food giants and are building a more just food system based on enforcement of these codes.
For generations, conditions in Florida were not so different from those Marosi discovered in Mexico. The CIW changed all of this by demanding that the large buyers of tomatoes hold Florida growers accountable for human rights violations in their fields. The CIW won agreements with a dozen retail food conglomerates and now their code of conduct serves as a model for agriculture everywhere.
If a worker is mistreated on a farm, that farm can no longer sell to companies like Walmart and McDonalds. This has made farm owners economically liable for abuses. It’s beautiful and it’s working.
Despite the transformation of Florida’s tomato fields, companies like Publix, which has nearly $30 billion in annual sales, continue to fight the Fair Food Program. It isn’t surprising that Publix has great influence over Florida growers. But when one of them wrote a letter to the Herald, calling the CIW’s efforts to pressure Publix “offensive” — it was surprising, since the grower was Kent Shoemaker, CEO of Lipman Produce, a leading partner in the Fair Food Program.
And it was of public interest because he took Eva Longoria to task in the process. Longoria produced my documentary, Food Chains, which explicitly attacks Publix for not supporting the Fair Food Program.
To Shoemaker’s credit, he has subsequently apologized, but the episode is a compelling reminder of just how powerful companies like Publix can be in shaping the behavior of the suppliers who want their business. For years in Florida, that overwhelming market power drove farmworker poverty and abuse. But, now through the Fair Food Program, that purchasing might has been harnessed to raise wages and improve working conditions.
Those supermarkets, like Publix, that resist the solution to worker abuses in the tomato industry — Florida’s Fair Food Program — should be taken to task and forced to do the right thing.
Sanjay Rawal, director, Food Chains, New York, NY