CIW response to Publix’s “Put it in the Price” defense

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Point-by-point rebuttal leaves Publix nowhere to hide…

Since the CIW first began to press Publix to support the Campaign for Fair Food, the supermarket giant’s efforts at communicating its reasons for refusing to participate have been, to put it charitably, inartful.

First there was the yes-we-do-but-we-pay-a-fair-market-price explanation for continuing to purchase tomatoes from fields tainted by the most recent slavery prosecution. Then there was the now famous atrocities-are-not-our-business defense for refusing to adopt the CIW’s Fair Food Code of Conduct. And, of course, they never could quite bring themselves to retire the old we-don’t-get-involved-in-labor-disputes canard, despite the fact that reality had left that argument behind two seasons ago.

Now comes the put-it-in-the-price defense. Just as farmworkers from Immokalee and Fair Food allies gathered in Tampa for a massive march and protest at the culmination of the Do the Right Thing Tour, Publix unveiled its latest public relations gambit to blunt the growing demand for real, verifiable social responsibility in its tomato supply chain.

And they seem to be pretty proud of it. Since then they have posted their new argument on the official Publix website, and their spokespeople now mechanically repeat its central tenets each and every time they speak to the press.

But while you’ve got to admire their new-found message discipline, the message itself fails, once again, to justify the company’s unconscionable refusal to support the Campaign for Fair Food, the best hope for more ethical labor standards in Florida’s tomato fields that the state has ever known.

At least that’s what we think. Now you can decide for yourself. What follows is a point-by-point response to Publix’s “put it in the price” defense:

 

What Publix Says: CIW Response:
Wages  
Put it in the Price: We suggest… [the Fair Food Program] put the cost of the tomatoes in the price they charge the industry for the goods… Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be in order to provide the goods to our customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer.” As it happens, that’s exactly where we put it – in the price.

The penny-per-pound premium is, in fact, built into the final price, on the invoice, for the majority of retailers participating in the Fair Food program. The retailers simply pay for their tomatoes, as they always have, only now with a small premium, similar to any fair trade product. The accounting and distribution of the penny-per-pound funds are handled down stream in the supply chain. The workers are paid by the growers, in the form of a bonus in each check. Publix would have nothing to do with paying “employees of other companies directly for their labor.”

Though the CIW has repeatedly explained this fact in the press since Publix started using the “Put it in the price” line of defense, Publix continues to use this specious argument and refuses to meet with the CIW to discuss the actual mechanism for the penny-per-pound payment. If they did, perhaps they would understand it better.

“Minimum wage has significantly changed since 1978, therefore, claims of unchanged work rates since then are unfounded.”

 

The vast majority of tomato harvesters are not paid an hourly wage, but rather are paid by the piece, and tomato harvesting piece rates have remained effectively stagnant, in actual terms, for nearly three decades. As a result, real wages for farmworkers have declined sharply since 1980.

Like textile workers at the turn of the last century, Florida tomato harvesters are still paid by the piece. The average piece rate today is 50 cents for every 32-lb bucket of tomatoes that workers pick. At the current rate, a worker must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday – nearly twice the amount a worker had to pick to earn minimum wage thirty years ago. To put this into perspective, if the 1980 piece rate of 40 cents per 32-lb bucket had simply kept up with inflation, it would equal $1.07 per bucket in 2011. Thus, in real terms, per bucket, tomato pickers today actually earn about half of what they earned 30 years ago.

“By law, workers must be paid at least a minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour.” Farmworkers are frequently denied the legal minimum wage; Farm work is not stable, 40-hour/week employment; Farmworker poverty is well-documented.

 

First, the argument that farmworkers “must be paid at least a minimum wage,” is like arguing that corporations are legally obligated to pay taxes. Technically true, but unrelated to reality.

As the Farmworker Justice/Oxfam report “Weeding Out Abuses” (2010) demonstrated, farmworkers suffer “rampant violations of the minimum wage” and other labor rights. This is a well-established aspect of farmworker reality, and enforcement of farmworkers’ labor rights, including the right to minimum wage, is a central focus of the Fair Food Code of Conduct that Publix refuses to adopt.

Further, Publix’s argument relies on the unstated assumption that farm work is a stable, 40-hour/week job, comparable to hourly employment. It is not. Farm work is a fundamentally unstable job, due to multiple factors, including weather, crop conditions, and travel. As a result, even if workers received a guaranteed minimum wage for every hour they worked, they would still be worse off than a stable hourly worker paid at minimum wage. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) described farmworkers as “a labor force in significant economic distress,”citing “low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, [and] significant periods of un- and underemployment” to support its conclusions. The DOL also found that while “production of fruits and vegetables has increased… agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline.”

Moreover, the argument callously implies that farmworkers calling on Publix to pay the Fair Food premium are exaggerating the poverty they face. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) re-affirmed the Department of Labor’s findings from 2000. It reported that farmworkers remain “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S.” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.” The USDA further explained that, due to the seasonal and unpredictable nature of agricultural work, farmworkers face periods of long hours with no overtime pay and yet, “on average, experience rates of unemployment double those of wage and salary workers.”

Due to these variables, trying to divine a farmworker’s nominal hourly wage is a meaningless endeavor. Rather, the most accurate measure of a farmworker’s earnings is annual income. A 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) analysis determined that farmworkers’ average annual incomes range from $10,000 to $12,499. Even this abysmally low number is misleading, as the study sample includes wages of managers and supervisors, resulting in a definite upward skewing of the NAWS figures.

“The U.S. Secretary of Labor published in the Federal Register that prevailing wages of farm workers in Florida will be $9.50 per hour for H2A Farmworkers effective on March 1st, 2011.” Once again, this point demonstrates the depth of Publix’s ignorance about the agricultural sector of its supply chain. The $9.50 figure is actually the 2011 Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), not the “prevailing wage”; The AEWR is not specific to tomato harvesters, and is therefore not an accurate indicator of tomato harvester incomes; Further, more than 95% of Florida tomato harvesters are not guestworkers and therefore are not even eligible to earn the AEWR.
Working Conditions  
“As a community partner for more than 80 years, it would be unconscionable to believe that our company would support a violation of human rights. We are unaware of a single instance of slavery existing in our supply chain. Publix is also unaware of a single instance of payment of less than the required minimum wage. Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such despicable behavior. If there are such grievances, we would direct those complaints to the appropriate local, state and federal government agencies.”

 

It is not surprising that Publix claims to be unaware of the litany of well-documented abuses that have occurred on farms from which it buys produce, because Publix has no credible system in place to monitor its own supply chain. You don’t see what you don’t look for.

It should go without saying that Publix is unaware of any slavery, minimum wage violations, or any other labor rights violations in its tomato supply chain because Publix has no credible mechanism to surface and investigate complaints, even when those violations are well known to the general public. That is exactly why, even after extensive coverage in the press, Publix continued to purchase tomatoes from the very farms where workers held against their will in the most recent slavery prosecution were taken to pick. In that case, Publix only acted to cut purchases after months of increasing public scrutiny forced their hand.

Since 1997, seven farm labor slavery operations involving a total of well over 1,000 workers have been successfully prosecuted in Florida, prompting one Justice Department official to label the state “ground zero for modern slavery.” Last year, two additional slavery indictments involving Florida agriculture were unsealed in federal court. While the vast majority of Florida farmworkers are not enslaved, wage theft, sexual harassment, and systemic minimum wage violations remain rampant throughout the industry, as mentioned above.

In that context, it is the height of irresponsibility for a company like Publix to pass the buck for policing its supply chain on to local, state, and federal government agencies. First of all, that is a retrospective approach that does nothing to prevent abuse or address the many causes of farmworker exploitation. Second, only a small fraction of the violations that do occur actually end up being brought to the attention of the authorities, meaning such an approach leaves the majority of abuse untouched and unsolved.

But perhaps most importantly, it is simply unconscionable to stand by and do nothing when a highly-lauded, creative new program for social responsibility like the CIW’s Fair Food program is being embraced by all those around you. Nine large retail food corporations, and now the entire Florida tomato industry, support this initiative designed specifically to attack labor abuse at the roots with the goal of forging an agricultural industry where the human rights violations of the past are no longer possible. To sit idly by not only deprives the Fair Food program of Publix’s market influence, it sends a clear message that there remains a market for any grower more wed to the past than committed to the future.

The eradication of human rights abuses in Florida agriculture will require more than the prosecution of individual cases. It will require a comprehensive, industry-wide approach like that of the Fair Food program, which includes the firm commitment by large retail purchasers, like Publix, to condition their purchases on compliance by their suppliers with more modern, more humane labor standards.

“If productivity standards are too strenuous, farmworkers should work for another employer. A shortage of labor will require employers to revise standards or working conditions.” Farmworkers don’t make farmworkers poor, Publix does.

Farm labor is among the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs in the country. Yet despite the difficulty of their jobs, farmworkers are the worst paid and least protected of all American workers.

Why is this so? In part, because Publix helps make farmworkers poor. Like other multi-billion dollar retail food companies, Publix buys tens of millions of pounds of tomatoes a year. It is able to leverage that tremendous market power to demand ever lower prices from its suppliers. Yet those suppliers are, at the same time, faced with rising input costs for diesel fuel, tractors, land, and pesticides. Caught in this cost/price squeeze, the only place growers can turn to maintain shrinking margins is to labor. As a result, piece rates have remained stagnant, and real wages have steadily fallen, over the past thirty years, mirroring exactly the rise of corporate food giants like Publix and WalMart. “Publix Profits from Farmworker Poverty” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a reality.

But rather than do its part to help reverse this impoverishment, Publix chooses to imply that somehow the men and women who work in the fields are not up to the job. In Publix’s cynical and illogical point of view, fashioned in the comfort of its air-conditioned corporate headquarters, farmworkers who are fed up with being exploited – of having no time to see their children, of living 12 to a broken-down trailer, of making sacrifices every day that the people who run Publix can’t even begin to imagine – shouldn’t take a stand and fight for fairer labor conditions.

Rather, instead of following in the footsteps of this county’s steelworkers, autoworkers, mineworkers, janitors, nurses, firefighters and police — and many, many more American workers who have organized to improve their jobs — farmworkers, in Publix’s opinion, should quit their jobs and allow the invisible hand of the labor marketplace do its work. This in an economy with double digit unemployment. To be perfectly frank, that thinking is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

Rather than insulting farmworkers, the very people whose undervalued labor has fueled its profits for decades, Publix has the opportunity to partner with them as equals to eliminate the poverty and degradation too long associated with Florida’s fields. It should embrace that opportunity sooner rather than later.

“Agriculture workers are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act.” True.

Jim Crow-era exclusions from federal workplace protections, including the National Labor Relations Act and provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, have profoundly contributed to the stark imbalance of power that farmworkers still face vis-a-vis their employers.

It’s that imbalance of power — and the consequent total absence of negotiations over wages and working conditions in the fields — that has resulted in farmworker wages losing more than half their real purchasing power over the past three decades as increasingly consolidated retail purchasers like Publix have leveraged their volume purchases to demand ever lower prices from their produce suppliers. Buyers demand lower prices from growers. Growers turn to workers and convert that pressure into lower wages. Workers, however, have had no place to turn. Now, with the Fair Food program, they do.

Publix’s participation in the Campaign for Fair Food would help reverse this trend by harnessing the purchasing power of the Florida’s largest privately held corporation for the betterment of farmworker wages and working conditions.

“Publix is pleased to see that those we do business with share in our aspiration to provide an enviable workplace for their employees. Publix is dedicated to the dignity, values, and employment security of our employees. The positive resolution of this issue [i.e., the November 2010 agreement between the CIW and the FTGE] demonstrates that the growers are committed to creating the same kind of workplace for their employees and we celebrate that decision.” While its words laud the recent agreement reached between the CIW and the FTGE, Publix’s actions tell a very different story. Publix’s refusal to support the higher wages and new standards established in the agreement actually threatens to undermine the very agreement they pretend to applaud.

The Campaign for Fair Food has led to historic agreements addressing human rights in the supply chain, culminating last November in an industry-wide agreement with the Florida Tomato Grower’s Exchange (FTGE) which extends human rights protections to the entire tomato industry in the State of Florida. This effort is about to create a truly unprecedented transformation in agricultural working conditions for over 30,000 workers, including a wage increase, a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process.

Yet the solution is only as strong – the raise is only as big, the change in working conditions is only as durable – as the number of buyers that support it. In the words of the FTGE’s Reggie Brown, “Everybody in the system has to be invested for it to work.” Publix is no exception.

Let’s be perfectly clear: Publix continues to shirk its responsibility to pay into the system and is therefore shorting workers of its portion of the wage increase. Likewise, Publix refuses to tie its purchases to the Fair Food principles, freeloading instead on the efforts of others to eliminate farm labor abuse. Simply put, if Publix has its way, the unprecedented transformation of farm labor conditions promised by the CIW’s landmark agreement with the FTGE would wither on the vine.

Miscellaneous  
“We are an associate-owned, Florida based supermarket. Any campaign to support workers should support rather than target the associate owned supermarket. Associate ownership is an important difference between Publix and its competitors.” This is simply irrelevant to the issues at hand.

Publix cannot point to any concrete distinctions in its behavior as a tomato buyer that are due to its corporate structure as an associate-owned company. Furthermore, despite the transparent attempt to pit workers against workers, the vast majority of our conversations over the past two years with Publix associates, from grocery baggers to store managers, indicate that they in fact support the Campaign for Fair Food, even if they are understandably reluctant to express such sentiments publicly. Indeed, if Publix actually listened to its associates, it might realize that there is a growing divide on the issue of this campaign between those who run Publix and those who work there.

“The CIW’s campaign to boycott the purchase of Publix tomatoes ironically hurts Florida farmworkers and the citizens of Florida who will see a withering Florida produce industry.” The CIW has not yet called for a boycott of Publix, nor does the Campaign for Fair Food represent a threat to the economic viability of the Florida tomato industry.

To the contrary, the Campaign for Fair Food stands to improve the Florida tomato industry’s ability to secure a share of the fast-growing market for ethically produced goods, and so helps chart a course for a more sustainable future for the industry as a whole. As Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange explained in the press release announcing the landmark agreement between the CIW and 90% of the state’s tomato industry, “As time goes by, we are confident that we will be able to weed out the bad actors and, working together, build a stronger, more sustainable industry that will be better equipped than ever to thrive in an increasingly competitive market place.” With the new agreement, the industry has come together as never before behind a simple idea: What’s good for Florida farmworkers is good for Florida tomato growers, and for Florida as a whole, too.

The time has come for change. Publix sits atop a food industry that has relied on the systematic exploitation of farmworkers for decades, profiting handsomely from farmworkers’ vastly undervalued labor. Today, however, after all these years, farmworkers, growers, and consumers have finally joined together to reform this patently unjust and unsustainable system. Yet Publix continues to resist change.

When Martin Luther King Jr. led the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, he spoke upon arrival to the crowd gathered at the foot of the state capitol. The crowd was exasperated, eager for long overdue change. Here is what he said:

“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’

“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Likewise, Publix’s arguments fail because they strain both the facts and logic. Its stubborn refusal to do the right thing will, also, ultimately fail because, like the cynical defense of segregation in Dr. King’s time, it is at odds with the arc of the moral universe.

As Lucas Benitez of the CIW said when he spoke outside a Tampa Publix at the Do the Right Thing Tour’s culminating protest earlier this month: “It is not a question of whether we will win, but when. And when we do win, we will not only help free workers from oppressive conditions in the fields, but we will also free Publix from the impossible burden of supporting and justifying that oppression.”

 

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