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A small, marginalized group of tomato pickers has changed the way corporate behemoths do business, and their strategy could well take off. 

There’s no question that this century has seen rampant foodieism. Consumers petition against pink slime and GMOs. Menus wax poetic about purveyors. We demand that our hens roam free and our cows be slaughtered with care.

Color photo of just man's hands opened showing the backs of very worn hands

The worn hands of a Latino lettuce picker in Camp Toro.

Source: Ted Soqui

Lost in the frenzy: the 1.4 million people who pick and pack produce in America’s fields. They’re vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, including outright slavery, and typically earn a pittance. Mostly, these workers are beyond the purview of elite “sustainability” concerns. Oddly, the foodie movement pays greater attention to animal welfare than to farmworker welfare. Have you ever checked whether the person who picked that organic arugula was paid a fair wage?

Probably not. In part because it’s hard to find out.

It’s one of the most cutting-edge human rights organizations in the country … their approach is the only one that has promise right now.

Happily, if slowly, this is changing, mostly because of a tomato-picker organization in a dinky town in southwest Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has about 4,500 members, many of whom don’t speak English. But in recent years, the Coalition has forced corporate megaliths like McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods to change how they do business. So far, some 11 companies have joined its Fair Food Program. It provides basic protections Florida tomato pickers never had, including a minimum wage and mechanisms to report and investigate abuse.

This isn’t just Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers 2.0, and it’s not just a feel-good, David-and-Goliath tale, either. The Coalition’s work has implications for what we eat, how we define sustainability and who should be accountable for workplace abuse. The Fair Food Program covers tomatoes and the 90,000 or so Florida workers who pick them, but the Coalition’s model could affect the lives of farmworkers around the country and, eventually, garment assemblers in Bangladesh and electronics workers in China.

“It’s one of the most cutting-edge human rights organizations in the country,” says Catherine Albisa, a lawyer who directs the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Her organization has worked with the Coalition for 10 years. “I think their approach is the only one that has promise right now.”

People wearing green tshirts as they walk left of frame protesting

CIW members at a Publix protest in Florida in 2011.

Its aims are simple. “Since the very beginning of the Coalition, our demands have been essentially the same: fair wages and dignified treatment,” says Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, a longtime staff member. And at first, its strategy was straightforward: pressuring farmers who employed tomato pickers for fair wages and conditions.

But that strategy shifted in the early 2000s. The Coalition saw that the farmers themselves were under tremendous price pressure from the grocery store conglomerates and fast-food companies they sold tomatoes to.

Fair Food Campaign

  • Protects minimum wage
  • Provides mechanisms to report abuse
  • 11 companies have joined, including Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle

“That’s when we realized we needed to go to the buyers of the produce we were picking, the McDonald’s and Taco Bells, because they’re the ones who have the greatest influence over the farmers, and the ones who benefit most from low wages and poor treatment of workers,” says Reyes-Chavez. They exercise “incredible buying power with total disregard of the workers at the bottom.”

Meghan and Gerardo facing camera speaking to children whose backs are towards the camera

Source: Getty

The Coalition’s boycott of Taco Bell enlisted students and community and faith-based organizations around the country, and lasted four years, until 2005, when the company agreed to pay a penny per pound more for its Florida tomatoes. This seemingly tiny increase was enough to almost double worker wages. Taco Bell also agreed to shift its purchases of Florida tomatoes to growers that complied with a human-rights-based code of conduct.

Two years later McDonald’s joined, and then, in 2008, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods did, too. Later came a number of leading food-service companies, followed by Trader Joe’s and Chipotle.

The difficulty was the trade group that controlled 90 percent of Florida’s tomatoes, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange: It refused to acknowledge the Coalition’s existence. When Maisie Ganzler, vice president of strategy at Bon Appetit Management, a participating food-service company, tried to negotiate with the Exchange in 2009, she made little headway. She describes the grower attitude as “You can pay me more money for tomatoes, but you can’t tell me what I do with my money.”

For years, the Exchange refused to pass on the extra penny per pound to workers and punished growers who did. Instead, much of the money was kept in escrow. It totaled more than $2 million by 2011 — the year the trade groups finally agreed to lift the ban on passing on the wage hike and sign on to the Fair Food Program.

Protestors on street with signs during the day

Supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest outside a Trader Joe’s store in in New York City in 2011.

Source: Getty

The development came as a surprise. “I was stunned,” says Albisa. “They had been so recalcitrant just the year before, on such a rampage of attacks.” Since then, says Reyes-Chavez, some growers in the Exchange have participated enthusiastically, others because they must.

The Fair Food Campaign has resulted in some $10 million in penny-a-pound payments from buyers, through farmers, and into worker paychecks since 2011. It also has made the fields safer. “Sexual harassment used to be rampant in the industry,” says Coalition staffer Guadelupe Gonzalo. “But now we know there’s a way to denounce it, to make it stop — and it’s becoming less and less normal.”

What’s next on the Coalition’s radar? Getting more companies, including Wendy’s and Publix, to join the Fair Food Program, because as long as growers have an alternative market, they have less incentive to participate.

Find out how the Fair Food Campaign has improved working conditions: Click on the Behind The Scenes box below to reveal more.

The Coalition isn’t looking to ”scale” anytime soon, and in some ways its power and pull rest on its intense connection with a specific community of farmworkers. But its strategy could apply to other crops, observers say, like cucumbers, avocados and tomatoes in other states.

And while fair labor remains low on the foodie agenda — a 2012 survey suggested safety, price and environmental sustainability easily outrank it — that may soon change. A biopic about Cesar Chavez comes out in April, and the Coalition is featured in an upcoming documentary called Food Chains, starring Eva Longoria.

“The sustainability movement has focused for so long on small and local, which is great — but it leaves out the farmworkers,” says Ganzler. Part of the reason is that consumers have little insight into worker conditions. There’s no way to know whether the person who picked your strawberries was paid fairly, exposed to toxic pesticides or had recourse in cases of harassment. “Many supply chains have been intentionally opaque,” she says. “The tactic of going right to the ultimate purchaser and exposing the ills of the supply chain is very powerful, and that’s what CIW has done.”

Could the Coalition’s strategy apply to other sectors, like garments assembled abroad or electronics made in China? ”It’s not impossible,” Reyes-Chavez says, “but a lot of pressure from different angles needs to be in place, and everyone has to work together, synchronized, like a watch.” Most important, he says, is that the movement be worker driven. “In this case, the watchmaker was the affected community: ourselves.”

Update

Wal-Mart joined the Coalition’s Fair Food Program the day this story was published, making it the 12th, and largest, retailer to do so. Given Wal-Mart’s purchasing power and influence over other supermarkets, Reyes-Chavez says, it’s a huge development and might lead to an expansion of the Fair Food Program to states beyond Florida and crops besides tomatoes.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Ozy Author DEPUTY EDITOR

Pooja Bhatia is a deputy editor at OZY. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.