Shining a rotten apple

Shining a rotten apple

Two farms that used workers held against their will in the Navarrete slavery case were certified as “socially accountable” by the grower-controlled monitoring agency called “SAFE” (Socially Accountable Farm Employers)

When news of Florida’s latest slavery prosecution hit the headlines last December, one crucial bit of information went largely overlooked.  

The paragraph below, tucked into the end of the Ft. Myers News Press story from December 20th entitled “Family sentenced for slavery,” touched on an aspect of the story that ultimately got lost in the swirl of sordid facts around the Navarretes case:

“The Navarretes took their crews to work on farms owned by some of the state’s major tomato producers: Immokalee-based Six L’s and Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto. Both tomato growers are part of the Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) program, designed to prevent labor abuses.” (emphasis added)

What exactly is “SAFE”?

SAFE is the product of a particularly unseemly union, the coming together of Florida’s plantation-scale tomato growers and the multi-billion dollar companies that buy their produce in an effort aimed at blunting the growing Campaign for Fair Food. 

The two joined forces in 2005 in the wake of the successful Taco Bell boycott.  An article in the Lakeland Ledger from the early days of SAFE — entitled “Growers Seeking SAFE Haven: Group hopes to set practices for farmworkers, but some say it’s skirting issue” – describes the birth of a bad idea:

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 three-year boycott and a run of bad press. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 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.”

In short, SAFE was the product of two sectors of the food industry that shared a single interest – stopping the spread of the principles of Fair Food. 

On the one hand were the growers, opposed to any substantive change whatsoever in wages and working conditions on their farms.  On the other were the food industry corporations, looking to stem the public relations damage from a campaign that had cast an unforgiving light on the systemic exploitation in their suppliers’ operations.  Together they came up with a plan that would leave conditions unchanged in Florida’s tomato fields while providing a superficial public relations answer to the increasing scrutiny of those brutal conditions.

What’s wrong with SAFE?

And so SAFE was born as a monitoring agency, developed and controlled by the growers themselves, designed to give the Florida agricultural industry – an industry dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” by a federal prosecutor — a clean bill of health.

There are many reasons to dismiss SAFE as a classic “fox guarding the henhouse” arrangement, but here are three of its most significant shortcomings:

  • SAFE is devoid of farmworker participation in its development, implementation, and oversight (one of SAFE’s founders told the press that “as far as I know, no farmworkers were involved in the writing,” of the SAFE code of conduct);
  • SAFE is based on an auditing process which, at best, is an extremely limited snapshot of conditions at a particular moment in time, and provides no way to measure, nor means to address, human rights violations that may occur outside of the frame of the annual audit;
  • The designers of SAFE decided to employ a certification model in which farms that pass their audits are certified as “socially accountable,” rather than a model that provides an avenue of ongoing redress for violations as they occur.  

The first two problems are obvious limitations to the SAFE approach.  The third, however, may not be as immediately apparent.  But the reason why a certification model is inappropriate for monitoring the Florida agricultural industry is actually quite simple: When you consider that labor abuses are endemic to Florida agriculture, and that the actual terrain to be monitored is so great and spread over such a wide geographical area, it is effectively impossible – and therefore unethical – to claim that any given grower is in fact “free” of labor exploitation and abuse.

But that is precisely what SAFE set out to do.  Below is SAFE’s “mission,” in its own words (SAFE website):

“SAFE certification signifies that a producer has complied with all applicable laws and regulations governing employment in the jurisdiction in which the company operates.

Producers who earn the SAFE seal have demonstrated that they foster a work environment for their employees that is free of hazard, intimidation, violence and harassment.”

Or, in the words of SAFE board member Barbara Mainster, “More than ever before, consumers want assurance that they are buying products from companies that treat employees fairly. SAFE certification is a way for farm employers to demonstrate that they are doing the right thing…”

A perfect reflection of its founders’ vision, SAFE simultaneously left the actual wages and working conditions in Florida’s fields unchallenged and applied a fresh coat of paint to a decrepit industry, giving the companies that buy Florida produce a weapon with which to fight the growing public relations battle over the conditions in their supply chains.

A ticking time bomb…

But that weapon would ultimately – and predictably — blow up in the faces of its makers. 

McDonald’s was one of the early supporters of SAFE, and sure enough, just one season into the doomed experiment, farmworkers at a major McDonald’s tomato supplier sued the company, AgMart, in a class action suit for systematically failing to pay minimum wage.  Here’s what we wrote at the time:

Frank Johns, on right, shown here with current FFVA Chairman Jay Taylor, at the 2006 FFVA Convention’s “Annual Cracker Breakfast,” held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Naples, FL
photo from “The Harvester Online”

“The question must be asked: How much longer will McDonald’s keep its head in the sand while the fiction of social responsibility in its tomato suppliers’ fields continues to crumble all around it?

AgMart, a key supplier of the grape tomatoes that grace McDonald’s salads, has made headlines time and time again, for everything from “crowded, squalid housing,” in North Carolina, to rehiring a convicted slaver to “recruit, supervise, and transport farmworkers for Ag-Mart Farms,” in Florida. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has joined forces with the powerful lobbying firm for Florida’s agricultural employers, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), to create an employer-controlled group to “monitor” workers’ rights on growers’ farms in Florida. And like clockwork, as soon as McDonald’s and the FFVA announce the creation of SAFE, to much fanfare, 2004 FFVA Chairman Frank Johns’ crewleader is indicted on more than 50 criminal counts and accused of holding his workers in servitude by federal prosecutors. Last week Johns’ crewleader, Ron Evans, received what the Miami Herald called, “the longest sentence handed out for abuse of farmworkers in recent Florida history.”

Bogus employer-controlled monitoring groups like SAFE, and shoddy “studies” like the one paid for by McDonald’s to “prove” farmworkers aren’t poor, may work for a moment to fool some people, but all the PR in the world can’t hide forever the essential truth that Florida agriculture is founded on the exploitation of its workers in the fields. At long last, can Ag-Mart’s latest scandal be the final straw?”

Unfortunately, the answer was no.  Even after McDonald’s distanced itself somewhat from SAFE when it reached an agreement with us later in 2007 (“we believe more needs to be done,”) it continued to work with SAFE-certified growers and so, like many other major buyers, supported the fiction that SAFE was a somehow legitimate, credible alternative to working with the CIW for substantive change. 

The AgMart minimum wage lawsuit and the slavery case on Frank Johns’ farm were not enough to sink SAFE.  It was only a matter of time, however, before the next slavery case would emerge from Florida’s fields, leaving SAFE totally discredited in its wake.

The final nail?… 

Which brings us back to where we started this post, last December’s brutal Navarrete slavery case (pictured here, from the left, are farm bosses Geovanni and Cesar Navarrete) and the two SAFE-certified farms associated with the case, Six L’s and Pacific.  For a reminder of just how inhumane conditions were for the workers forced to pick tomatoes against their will and for little or no pay by the Navarrete family, here’s an extended excerpt from the Ft. Myers News-Press report:

“One of the prosecutors, Susan French, called Cesar Navarrete the family’s ‘young patriarch.’ Geovanni Navarrete was ‘the enforcer, the beater.’

‘This defendant is the one who chained the worker’s feet to the pole,’ French said of Geovanni, ‘the one who beat them, slapped them … multiple victims, multiple acts of violence, multiple injuries to the victims.’

One of the victims, Mariano Lucas Diego, spoke of what he’d endured: beatings and nighttime imprisonment in a truck, where the family’s captives would have to urinate and defecate in the corners.

Diego described pounding on the truck until he and another victim made a hole through which they squeezed out, then found a ladder so the others could escape.

Diego spoke of several beatings.

‘Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them,’ he told Judge John E. Steele.

As Diego spoke, Geovanni Navarrete watched, shaking his head, a slight smile curling his upper lip.”

In the face of such outrageous exploitation, any objective observer would be forced to conclude that SAFE certification isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.  And indeed, more and more major purchasers of Florida tomatoes – companies like Whole Foods and Bon Appetit – are opting to work with the CIW to develop stringent new standards and work with growers who meet those higher standards.

Or not…

But as yet another season ends here in Immokalee, there are still companies that – either out of ignorance or indifference – cling to SAFE when questioned about labor abuses in their supply chains. 

Take the supermarket giant Ahold for example (Ahold is the parent company to the Stop&Shop and Giant chains, as well as several other major chains in Europe).  Harriet Hentges, Ahold’s Vice President for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, wrote in a letter to the CIW dated May 4th, 2009:

“As a company, we are committed to providing products that are safe and responsibly sourced and that our suppliers respect the legitimate rights of their workers… The Federal government, the State of Florida, as well as organizations such as Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) must do all they can to ensure that farm workers are treated fairly and according to the existing laws and regulations.”

The letter continued, “While we purchase Florida tomatoes only during the spring season, nonetheless, our supplier is audited by SAFE.” 

At the time of the Ron Evans slavery case, we posted an analysis on this site entitled, “On Foxes, Hen Houses, and Social Responsibility in the Fast-Food Industry.” Though it was written in the heat of the McDonald’s campaign, its fundamental argument rings just as true today. Here’s an excerpt:

“It is time, finally, to call a fox a fox. As Judge Moore’s opinion might suggest, McDonald’s decision to join with the growers to protect farmworker rights is the equivalent of “partnering” with the foxes themselves to guard the henhouse.

The judge’s words in condemning the agricultural industry for the persistence of slavery in Florida’s fields bear repeating here: “Others at a higher level of the fruit picking industry seem complicit in one way or another with how these activities occur.” When McDonald’s first announced its decision to join forces with the growers, we predicted their new partners would disappoint them sooner or later — we just didn’t know then that the next major revelation of unconscionable exploitation would take place on the farm of a former Chairman of the FFVA. Fate, it appears, is not without a sense of irony.

We hold this truth to be self evident: When it comes to taking an effective stand against farm labor abuse, no one is better placed than workers themselves. Farmworkers’ immediate personal experience provides them with the greatest knowledge and understanding of the abuses typical in Florida’s fields today. Further, of all the possible actors, workers have the greatest personal interest in seeing the abuses brought to an end.

For workers in Florida’s agricultural industry to take an effective stand in defense of their own rights, two conditions must be met. First, workers must participate in the design, implementation, and monitoring of any code of conduct or set of supplier standards that is to apply to their employment rights, and that participation must be genuine, through organized workers with experience in the field of human rights. And second, workers must enjoy the fundamental economic security and protections against retaliation necessary to make their rights under those standards real. Workers earning sub-poverty wages who can be fired for complaining are justifiably reluctant to defend their rights when they are violated for fear of losing their job and being left with no income at all.

Any sustainable solution to farmworker exploitation must take this fundamental reality into consideration. When, and only when, McDonald’s and the rest of the fast-food industry commit themselves to improving farmworker wages and working with the CIW to advance farmworkers rights will real progress for farmworkers in Florida be possible.”

What to do with a rotten apple?…

We end this reflection with a question: If you had a grocery store and you got stuck with a load of rotten apples or mealy melons, what would you do? 

Would you dump the rotten fruit, accept the loss, and invest your money in better fruit?  Or would you shine up the rotten apples, stack the melons just right, and hope to pass your loss off on an unsuspecting public with a dazzling display of otherwise rotten fruit?

Apparently, if you’re like Ahold, or any number of other food retailers trying to sell Florida tomatoes sourced from an industry that steadfastly refuses to respect its workers’ rights, you’d shine those rotten apples right up and take your chances.

Problem is, most people really hate getting home and biting into a rotten apple.