Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Let the debate begin…

Here below you’ll find the arguments that Chipotle has made against the CIW’s campaign and in defense of the conditions in its tomato supply chain. You’ll find all of these arguments in an article in the Rocky Mountain News from 9/13/06 entitled, “Coalition targets Chipotle’s tomato farmers.

We’ll answer their arguments one by one, and you can decide what you think. We hope this helps you as a consumer make more informed decisions about whether to spend your food dollars at Chipotle — or not.

1) Chipotle says: “We are only being targeted because of our relationship with McDonald’s…”

Our answer:  The reason we are addressing Chipotle is simple: Chipotle says that its business is organized around one guiding philosophy, and it calls that philosophy “Food with Integrity.”  Chipotle CEO Steve Ells defines “Food with Integrity” on the company’s website, where he says its goal is “no less ambitious than revolutionizing the way America grows, gathers, serves, and eats its food.”  Here’s a little more from what Chipotle calls “Our Food with Integrity Manifesto”:

Food with Integrity means working back along the food chain.  It means going beyond distributors to discover how the vegetables are grown, how the pigs, cows, and chickens are raised… Our size helps us influence the decisions of our suppliers.  And lets us shoulder our way into the consciousness of the American eating public…  What does all this mean to you?  In the short-term it means better-tasting tacos and burritos…  Looking forward, it means encouraging growers to pursue humane and healthy practices… It means new and higher expectations from all of us about what we consume every day.”

We agree with Chipotle’s vision of “Food with Integrity,” but we don’t think it should be limited to environmental and animal rights concerns.  We think the definition of “integrity” must include the full respect of human rights for the farmworkers who cultivate and harvest the food, too.

In short, we believe that “Work with Dignity” must be an integral part of “Food with Integrity.”  But the workers who pick tomatoes for Chipotle today are denied the right to overtime pay, denied the right to organize, and earn sub-poverty annual wages.  They receive absolutely none of the traditional employment benefits – no sick leave, no health insurance, no holiday pay, and no retirement plan.  It is the contradiction between Chipotle’s vision of “Food with Integrity” – a vision that the company has placed squarely at the heart of its marketing strategy – and the reality of those farm labor conditions that has brought us to ask Chipotle to help us change those conditions.

Chipotle’s goal – “to revolutionize the way America grows and gathers its food” – is our goal too.  But we cannot claim to change how we gather our food unless those who gather it — this country’s farmworkers — are paid a wage that allows them to live with dignity and are afforded the right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives as workers.

To its credit, Chipotle has taken substantive steps to improve conditions for farm animals in its suppliers’ operations.  We only ask that the company demand the same admirable standards for human rights in their supply chain as they have for animal rights.

Ultimately, this campaign revolves around one simple question: Is “Food with Integrity” in fact Chipotle’s guiding business philosophy, or is it just a clever marketing slogan?  The answer to that question will be found in the concrete steps Chipotle takes to address the sweatshop conditions in the fields where its tomatoes are picked. 

2) Chipotle says: “Florida tomatoes account for about 20 percent of Chipotle’s needs and are purchased just 12 weeks a year. Tomatoes from Immokalee represent 5 percent of Chipotle’s supply…”

Our answer:  Let’s get this straight.  Chipotle says that only 20% of its tomatoes are purchased from Florida farms – farms denounced by the workers who pick there as modern-day sweatshops in the fields.

Does that mean that, when it comes to the tomatoes in its burritos, 80% integrity is enough?  Is it Chipotle’s argument that most of the tomatoes in its food were not picked by exploited labor?

And just what does 80% integrity mean?  In our understanding, integrity is a concept that can’t be subdivided – it is an all or nothing concept, you either have it or you don’t.  It is an idea that cannot tolerate contradiction.  To us, even 20% sweatshop means any and all claim to integrity is lost.

And that is not to say that we accept the assertion that tomatoes produced outside of Florida are in fact produced in the full respect of workers’ rights.  To make such a distinction is, quite frankly, disingenuous.  Instead of telling us that 80% of its tomatoes come from outside of Florida, why doesn’t Chipotle tell us what percentage of its tomatoes come from workers who are paid overtime, whose right to organize and collectively bargain is respected, and who earn a wage that allows them to live free of degradation?

But if Chipotle is citing the 20% figure in order to imply that the company doesn’t have sufficient influence over its suppliers to change the way they treat their workers, we would again have to disagree.

When McDonald’s acquired a majority interest in Chipotle several years ago, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells said, “We’ve found the rich uncle every restaurant wishes it had behind it.”  Chipotle’s relationship with McDonald’s has been extremely beneficial to the much smaller burrito chain, and nowhere more so than in helping secure the most favorable deals possible from its suppliers. Thanks to Chipotle’s ability to piggy back on McDonald’s high volume purchases, the small but fast-growing chain has been able to receive the same low prices for produce as the burger giant – low prices that have resulted in increasing farmworker poverty.

Indeed, Chipotle’s relationship with McDonald’s has allowed the company to profit and grow well beyond its own means.  On this issue, we’ll give Chipotle the last word, again from its “Manifesto”:

“(M)ake no mistake, growth can be good.  Our size helps us influence the decisions of our suppliers… Our size means we can change for the better the way more people eat.”

3) Chipotle says: Our tomatoes, “come from four farms that the company has monitored for standards compliance.”

Our answer:  Compliance with what?  Certainly not Fair Trade standards, as there are no Fair Trade certified tomato growers in Florida.

There is in fact only one certification group currently monitoring Florida growers for labor conditions, a group that calls itself “Socially Responsible Farm Employers” (SAFE).  The birth of SAFE was described in a Lakeland Ledger article from 1/29/06, entitled “Growers Seeking SAFE Haven”:

“WASHINGTON — Jay Taylor recalls the seeds being sown last spring in a tomato packinghouse in Palmetto, where members of the restaurant industry and Florida agriculture met to discuss an escalating labor war.

That March, Taco Bell had agreed to pay tomato pickers in Florida an extra penny per pound and to demand new labor standards from growers after a threeyear boycott and a run of bad press. The , the boycott organizer, had cast an unflattering spotlight on growers with a shame campaign against a big corporate customer.

Vegetable growers and other restaurant chains knew the Bell deal, the first of its kind, tolled for them.

Taylor said the message from restaurant representatives was clear: “You guys have got to do something about this issue.”

As the article’s title, and its opening paragraphs, suggest, the name “SAFE” refers not so much to workers safe from exploitation and abuse, but growers and restaurant chains seeking safety from further public criticism. 

SAFE is a classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse.  It was created  by and for the very employers on whose fields workers have been exploited for decades.  It has been widely denounced by religious, human rights, and labor experts, and today even McDonald’s — the company responsible for bringing the growers together in that tomato packinghouse to discuss their common dilemma in the wake of the Taco Bell boycott victory — has distanced itself from the discredited initiative, saying that SAFE-certification is not sufficient to qualify as a McDonald’s supplier. 

Is Chipotle setting the bar even lower than McDonald’s?  This would be particularly surprising for a company like Chipotle, which markets itself aggressively for going above and beyond legal requirements for animal rights.  SAFE standards require the bare minimum of compliance with all applicable laws – laws that exclude farmworkers from such fundamental human rights as the right to overtime pay and the right to organize.  Surely Chiptole can do better than that.

4) Chipotle says:  “It’s unfortunate the group has painted an entire industry with the same brush.”

Our answer:  The tomato industry is characterized by:

  1. Piece rates that haven’t changed in 25 years
  2. Sub-poverty annual wages
  3. No right to overtime
  4. No right to organize

These are sweatshop conditions, and they are standard across the Florida tomato industry, whether Chipotle chooses to recognize it or not.  The industry is what it is — we did not paint it that way.

The latest case of servitude to make headlines in Florida is instructive of just how widespread abuse and degradation is in Florida agriculture.  Ron Evans is a longtime Florida crewleader who is today facing the possibility of life in prison after having been convicted on over 50 charges.  Here’s a brief description of Evan’s operation from the Fayetteville Observer (7/30/06):

“Five other former Evans employees charged in the case have pleaded guilty. In plea agreements, they indicated that Evans deceived, manipulated and coerced workers — a deliberate attempt to keep them addicted to cocaine and indebted to their boss… Laborers also told investigators that Evans and his son, Ron Evans Jr., carried pistols and that a staff member circled the fenced-in camp at night with a flashlight and a machete…”

In Florida, Evans’ workers picked for Tater Farms, owned by Frank Johns. Mr. Johns was the 2004 Chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), the powerful lobbying arm of the Florida agricultural industry. He remains today the Chairman of the FFVA’s Budget and Finance Committee.  The FFVA was also the organization behind the founding of SAFE and the first member of its board of directors

Mr. Johns praised Ron Evans, Sr., as “an above average crewleader” to the press and public in the months leading up to the trial — even after federal prosecutors had filed multiple charges against Mr. Evans. According to an article from July 14, 2005, in the Palatka Daily News:

“Farmer Frank Johns of Tater Farms said much of the issue has been overblown by the media, who he said owe an apology to Ron Evans Sr.  ‘I’d like to think our operation is a little above average, and I think Ron Evans is an above-average crew leader,’ Johns said.”

The Evans case — and Mr. Johns’ bewildering perspective on the crewleader who held his workers in debt by selling them crack cocaine – are sadly not aberrations in Florida agriculture.  There have been numerous cases of modern-day slavery discovered and prosecuted in Florida since 1997 alone, enough to prompt one federal prosecutor to declare Florida “ground-zero for modern-day slavery” (New Yorker, 4/03). 

5) Chipotle says: “Just because an activist group doesn’t like what we’re doing, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with what we’re doing.”

Our answer: The CIW is hardly alone in its criticism of the fast-food industry.  Nor does the CIW stand alone in calling on Chipotle to demand higher standards of its suppliers. 

It is the CIW’s position that the fast-food industry shares responsibility for farmworker poverty due to its volume purchasing practices.  But that is not the CIW’s position alone.  A recent article in the produce industry journal “The Packer” by the owner of a tomato re-packing company leaves no room for doubt that the downward pressure on farmworker wages originates in the downward pressure on farm-gate prices exerted by the major purchasers of Florida tomatoes (re-packers are the link in the supply chain between the farms in Florida and the fast-food companies).  Here’s an excerpt from the article, entitled, Big fast-food contracts breaking tomato repackers:

“Now, these growers are being forced to lower their prices for these specific tomatoes just so the repackers can break even. This eventually will work its way down to the tomato pickers, who may be forced to take a cut… Forcing down the cost of tomatoes, a minor component on the fast-food menu, does little to make the restaurant more profitable. It will go a long way toward harming a loyal group of suppliers and growers and their workers.” 

And the list of organizations calling on Chipotle to clean up labor abuses in its supply chain is a little longer than “an activist group.”  The Alliance for Fair Food is a large and rapidly-growing coalition of religious, labor, student and community groups coming together around a vision of an American food industry that no longer depends on the extreme exploitation of labor to bring in our harvests and put food on our plates.  That list includes religious leaders and mainstream national denominations, national and international human rights organizations, leading student and community groups, national political leaders, artists, and academics, and a Nobel Peace prize laureate.

But in the final analysis, Chipotle doesn’t need any “activist groups” telling it what is wrong with what it’s doing.  It already knows.  Chipotle’s own “Food With Integrity” manifesto proves it.