March 14, 2007

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CIW LETTER TO WHOLE FOODS CEO JOHN MACKEY

March 14, 2007

Mr. John Mackey, CEO
Whole Foods Market, Inc.
601 N. Lamar Suite 300
Austin, Texas 78703

Dear Mr. Mackey,

My name is Lucas Benitez, and I am writing on behalf of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  The CIW is a membership organization of agricultural workers based in Immokalee, Florida.  Florida is the country’s leading producer of fresh tomatoes, and many of our members pick the tomatoes that are sold across the country in retail food markets like Whole Foods.  Your company and our organization stand at two ends of the same industry.

We are writing to you today because your company has distinguished itself as few others have in support of sustainable agriculture.  As the country’s largest retailer of organic foods, Whole Foods’ leadership in educating America’s consumers to the benefits and value of organic farming is unparalleled.  But your company’s reach in the world of sustainable agriculture is felt well beyond the field of organic farming.  Whole Foods’ documented ability to demand the humane treatment of farm animals in its supply chain is just one example.  Indeed, sustainable agriculture has enjoyed a tremendous surge in popular acceptance over the past 20-30 years, and Whole Foods is to be commended for its role in its growing popularity. 

Yet, as you surely know, the notion of sustainability in agriculture is widely understood to include three distinct but interdependent dimensions – economic, environmental, and social.  And among those three dimensions, social sustainability – and specifically the treatment of farm labor – has seen the least amount of progress in US agriculture.  In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that farmworker conditions in the fields today, and in particular the tomato fields of Florida where our members work, constitute nothing less than a human rights crisis. 

The US Department of Labor (DOL) has described farmworkers as “a labor force in significant economic distress.” Tomato pickers earn about 45 cents for every 32-lb bucket of tomatoes they pick, working from dusk to dawn without the right to overtime pay.  The 45-cent piece rate hasn’t changed in nearly 30 years.  As a result, farmworker wages fall beneath the federal poverty level.  The DOL reports that farmworkers earn an average of only $7,500 – $10,000 per year.  Of course, the vast majority of farmworkers receive absolutely no benefits — no health insurance, no sick leave,  no vacation pay — and have no right to organize to address these conditions on their own.  

Conditions in Florida’s fields have grown so brutal that, in the most extreme cases, many farmworkers toil in actual modern-day slavery, held against their will by violent employers.  This reality is as well-documented as it is deplorable: there have been six federal criminal prosecutions by the Department of Justice and the FBI for modern-day slavery in Florida fields in the past ten years, involving over a thousand farmworkers.  There are also currently several pending investigations.  The situation prompted one federal prosecutor to call Florida “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in the New Yorker magazine.

That is the problem, but progress toward a solution is underway.  As you may already know, on March 8th, 2005, the CIW came to a far-reaching agreement with Yum Brands, ending a four-year old, national boycott of Taco Bell.  The agreement calls for Taco Bell to pay farmworkers an extra penny per pound for tomatoes it purchases, by means of a pass-through arrangement with its suppliers.  As workers earn just over a penny per pound today (45 cents per 32 lb bucket), that small premium could nearly double pickers’ wages if adopted at the industry level. 

Taco Bell and Yum Brands also agreed to work with us to strengthen their Supplier Code of Conduct, creating important new avenues for farmworkers to participate in the protection of their own rights and real consequences for suppliers who would violate their workers’ rights.

As Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum Brands, said at the press conference announcing the agreement, “Human rights are universal, and we hope others will follow our company’s lead.”  We, of course, agree with Mr. Blum – without the participation and support of other major tomato purchasers, Taco Bell’s action will have a more limited impact.  Taco Bell can’t do it alone.

Clearly, you and Whole Foods’ leadership know best how these new principles might work within Whole Foods.  But your company’s track record gives us great hope that we can work together to build on the precedents set in the agreement with Yum Brands.  The principles established in that agreement – a fair wage and a voice for farmworkers in the protection of their own rights – are fundamental principles of fairness that cannot be ignored if we are to work toward an agricultural industry that one day might rightfully be described as sustainable.  While the exact form those principles might take in Whole Foods’ supply chain may differ from the form established in the Taco Bell agreement, their place in your company’s guiding philosophy seems natural and essential.

We would truly appreciate an opportunity to speak with you at your earliest convenience to discuss how we might work together to advance this growing partnership for human rights and social responsibility in Florida’s fields.  Please do not hesitate to contact me at 239-657-8311 or lucas@ciw-online.org.

                                                                       
                                                                                                Sincerely,

 

                                                                                                Lucas Benitez, CIW