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A 21st century Christmas Carol for the food industry?… Part One

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Workers in Mexico’s tomato fields wait to dump harvest buckets. Photo by the Los Angeles Times.

The LA Times grabs the food industry by the hand and drags it on a nightmare tour through the inhumanity of Mexico’s vegetable fields… 

How will this modern-day Christmas Carol end?  Will the industry respond with a collective “Bah Humbug!”? Or might a “God bless us, every one!” be in the cards?

First, a little bit of holiday season history.

“An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” was the title of a political pamphlet that Charles Dickens planned to write in 1843 following the publication of a parliamentary report in Britain that year on the effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children.  Instead he wrote “A Christmas Carol,” and the world is a far, far better place today for it.

With his character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens gave a body and a name to the collective ills of British society as he saw them in the early years of the Industrial Revolution — a society driven by the forces of unchecked greed and individualism.  Scrooge’s journey, in the space of one long night, from a bitter baron of the modern age to a man redeemed and believer in the common good, was a metaphor for the journey Dickens hoped that British society as a whole might travel if his story were a success.  And, happily, his story captured the imaginations of millions of Britons and opened the minds of 19th century readers to the excesses of laissez faire capitalism.  “A Christmas Carol” contributed importantly to the enactment of humanitarian reforms — from the ban on child labor to days of rest — that we take for granted today.

A Christmas Carol for the 21st century…

Fast forward 150 years to the present… 

Last week’s LA Times blockbuster investigative series into human rights abuses in Mexico’s produce industry revealed a world of greed and indifference that would make Scrooge blush.  Like Dickens’ tour of the poverty and deprivation that prevailed then and the dire consequences that awaited British society if it did not change, the LA Times series took us all on a tour of the horrors that are today in Mexico’s fields — forced labor, wage theft, child labor, physical violence against workers by their bosses, and horrific housing conditions — and posed the challenge of reform to the food industry, specifically to the retail food giants that purchase Mexican produce.   

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And what has been the reaction of the industry to the LA Times report?  Shock?  Dismay?  A clarion call to reform?

Well, if the “Perishable Pundit’s” post on the series is any indication, the term “Bah Humbug” certainly comes to mind.  Here are just a few quotes from the Pundit, the nom de blog of produce industry insider Jim Prevor, who had more than a few bones to pick with the series: 

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On child labor:

“Once again, though, there is no explanation of what these children would be doing if they were not working. Would they and their families really have better lives? Or would it just assuage the moral feelings of affluent American consumers?”

On why workers “choose” to take jobs in such horrific conditions:

“Virtually every one of them has a friend or relative who has already gone down this path. So they have intimate acquaintances with full knowledge of the pros and cons of working in the fields and yet they choose to do so.

This is really the important question to study. Why do they choose to do so? The almost certain answer is that, difficulties and all, they believe this path offers a better alternative than any other alternatives available to them.”

On whether the conditions described in the series constitute “exploitation” given the poverty of those who work the fields:

“There is hardship without a doubt, but for the poor life is always hard and it is odd to call “exploitation” the providing of an alternative that people view as a better alternative than any other choice they have.”

On the illegal withholding of workers’ wages by their employers until the end of the season:

“Perhaps the workers don’t want their wages given while they are encamped because they might get robbed or they might be tempted to spend the money rather than save it for their families.

Maybe a little more reporting would reveal why the wages are withheld in the first place. What happened in the past when, say, weekly or monthly payments were followed? The article is silent in this area.”

On what would happen if conditions were to improve in Mexico:

“Perhaps the biggest issue, which the article does not explore at all, is what the consequences would be of upgrading the situation of the field hands. Suppose there was really an effort to give workers the kinds of environments that would make Americans proud of their food supply chain? The one thing that is for certain is it would raise the price of the product and, as it did so, the labor situation would change.

Other growing areas would become more competitive and would take business away from the Mexicans.” read more

You can read more of the Perishable Pundit’s post here.

Yes, the post reads like a parody of Dickens, and given the timing of its publication, that really would be its most charitable reading.  Except, it isn’t a parody.  The spirit of Scrooge is truly strong in this one.  The only thing missing from his response to the Times’ findings was an exasperated shout of “Are there no poor houses!?”    

Perhaps, before moving on, it is worth noting that a 12-yr old girl by the name of Alejandrina Castillo (pictured below), who is featured in the third installment of the LA Times series which focuses on child labor, shared many of her own thoughts on the question of “choice” in the investigative report.  Her quotes, scattered throughout the piece, are enlightening (and more than a bit appalling, frankly, given that the Pundit must have read these same quotations before penning his post):

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  • “I work because… we need money to eat things.”

  • Alejandrina looked in the distance for the food truck. It was almost noon, five hours since she had a tortilla for breakfast. The sky was cloudless. It would be another 90-degree day in the palm-lined coastal farmland of southern Sinaloa. “I wish I was home with my baby brother,” she said.

  • Alejandrina’s feet ached and she shivered at night from the cold. She never complained. She understood that when the crops had been picked in one place, it was time to move on. “If we stay, we will die of starvation,” she said.

  • She once dreamed of becoming a teacher. “I think that it’s too late because … I failed myself, for not being in school,” she said. “And school is very important, so you can be someone.”

    Now, her life was defined by the filth and dreariness of fieldwork. She said she could use some better shoes: “Here we suffer…. Here there is nothing but mud, all mud.”

So, that’s a different cut on things.  Guess the Pundit and Alejandrina are just going to have to agree to disagree.

What day is it, boy?

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But just as Scrooge’s dark night of soul-searing visions and denial gave way to the light of a new day and redemption, the Pundit’s post contains within it the seeds of self-awareness that will, ultimately, lead to change, whether the “Bah Humbug” responders want it or not.  Here’s the final message from his post:

But transparency on the supply chain is increasingly going to be demanded, and this article is neither the first nor the last. The newspaper’s effort in putting together graphs showing the flow of produce is a game-changer. It is telling retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart that you own your supply chain and you will be held responsible for all that occurs within it.

And on this count the Pundit is, finally, quite right.  There’s no going back to the supermarket of the 1970’s, where consumers asked no questions about the story behind their food and what happened in the supply chain stayed in the supply chain.  

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The era of transparency is here to stay.  The internet — and the democratization of the media that provides the Perishable Pundit and this website equal access to consumers and industry leaders everywhere — isn’t going anywhere.  And no matter how good or how powerful, there’s no public relations firm that can force that particular genie back into the bottle.

For the 21st century supermarket, the human rights violations in Mexico’s fields today, just like the human rights violations in Bangladesh’s garment factories last year and the human rights violations in Florida’s fields before them, can no longer be hidden from view.  Damage control is — at best — a short-term solution.  

And that is exactly why the era of Corporate Social Responsibility is dead.  CSR was a public relations response to a human rights crisis wherever the inhumane labor practices of low-wage industries threatened to stain the billion-dollar reputations of the brands that bought and sold the products produced by those industries.  

Worker-driven Social Responsibility (or WSR), however, is in fact a 21st century solution for the 21st century supermarket.  It provides a long term answer to the questionable practices of unscrupulous suppliers not by covering those practices up or exonerating the brands when they come to light, but by reforming labor practices in the supply chain altogether through the leadership of the very workers whose human rights are in question.  

Which brings us to Part Two of this post.  Check back soon for the conclusion of this reflection on the LA Times investigative series into the Mexican produce industry and what it will ultimately mean for the food system — in this country and in Mexico as well — as a whole.  The battle for the soul of the food industry is on, but every long night eventually gives way to the new day…

“I work because… we need money to eat things”…

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