Et tu, Kroger?

June 26, 2010

Country’s largest grocery store chain still purchasing from grower tainted by latest slavery prosecution (right);

Rejects partnership with CIW, tells shareholders “we can make more progress… working directly with the growers than we can by working with a third party“…

Wow. It must be something about the supermarket industry that makes saying patently ludicrous things seem perfectly reasonable.

First, it was Publix, which justified its decision to continue purchasing tomatoes from growers found to have employed slave labor by admitting that it bought the tainted tomatoes but did so at a “fair market price.” Good as that line might have sounded in the board room, not surprisingly it didn’t fly with consumers, and Publix was ultimately forced to reverse course and suspend purchases from the growers in question on the eve of last April’s Farmworker Freedom March (a move, of course, that was far too little, far too late, but that’s another story).

Now, Kroger, the country’s largest grocery store chain, is defending its decision to continue purchasing tomatoes from slavery-tainted growers — and its refusal to work with the CIW to address human rights violations in its supply chain — by saying they think they can “make more progress… working directly with the growers than we can by working with a third party.

Yep. That’s what Kroger CEO David Dillon told the audience at Kroger’s annual shareholders meeting last week in Ohio. The day before the annual meeting, Interfaith Action’s Brigitte Gynther found the tomatoes in the picture above at a Kroger store in Findlay, Ohio. The “Sunripe” label is a product of Pacific Tomato Growers, one of the farms where the enslaved workers from the Navarrete case were forced to pick tomatoes.

Brigitte was on her way to the shareholders meeting to ask Kroger’s leadership why the company has so far refused to work with the CIW to improve wages and working conditions in the fields where its tomatoes are picked. Finding Pacific tomatoes on Kroger’s shelves on the eve of the meeting only underscored the urgency of her question. Here, in part, is what Brigitte (right, at microphone) asked:

“Last week, the State Department released the 2010 “Trafficking in Persons” report, a comprehensive evaluation of human trafficking and forced labor around the world. Here in the United States, seven modern-day slavery rings have been prosecuted in Florida agriculture in recent years, involving over 1,000 farmworkers. In December 2008, two Florida farm labor supervisors were sentenced in federal court for “beating, threatening, restraining, and locking workers in trucks to force them to work as agricultural laborers.”

The farmworkers enslaved in this case picked tomatoes on two of Florida’s major tomato farms – at least one of which is a Kroger supplier as evidenced by the tomatoes here (holds up tomatoes purchased in Findlay, Ohio, store)…

… With growing consumer and shareholder demand for social sustainability, when will Kroger join the growing number of companies partnering with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to establish fair wages and conditions for farmworkers and be able to guarantee to consumers there is no slavery in its tomato supply chain?”

Kroger’s CEO David Dillon assured the audience that Kroger understands the gravity of the problem and shares the CIW’s objectives. He pointed to the company’s code of conduct and its provision prohibiting forced labor (apparently without irony…), and then closed with the patently ludicrous statement with which we started this post, saying (and it bears repeating) that Kroger thinks “we can make more progress… working directly with the growers than we can by working with a third party.”

Dillon then went on to say that criminals should police themselves, professional athletes should call their own games, and, of course, foxes should guard the henhouse… (OK, he didn’t say those other things… but he might as well have).

When she addressed the crowd following April’s Farmworker Freedom March, Emory University professor Carol Anderson (right) said, “There can be no plausible deniability for long-term, documented human rights violations.”

Likewise, no reasonable person — much less the CEO of a company that has profited for decades from Florida tomatoes made cheap by the unconscionable exploitation of the men and women who pick them — can today give the tomato industry the benefit of the doubt when it comes to addressing the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields. Florida tomato growers have proven, beyond all reasonable doubt, that they are incapable of policing their own industry.21

Kroger is not Publix. Publix is a regional chain based in the heart of Central Florida, and so it is understandable — not acceptable, but understandable — if the leadership of Publix identifies with the old guard of Florida’s tomato industry.

But Kroger is a national chain with a unionized workforce and stores concentrated in some of the country’s most progressive markets. The company needs to rethink its position on how best to address human rights violations in its supply chain, or it can plan on more and more visits from the Campaign for Fair Food in the days and months ahead. And Fair Food activists in places like California and Oregon, Michigan and Ohio, aren’t going to take “we prefer to work with the foxes” for an answer.


UPDATE: Since this page was originally posted, Pacific Tomato Growers has agreed to participate in CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food and has adopted a comprehensive Code of Conduct that affords significant verifiable worker protections. This Code reconfirms Pacific Tomato Grower’s long-standing commitment to a zero tolerance for forced labor. While Pacific Tomato Growers was never the target or subject of the Federal prosecution’s Navarrette investigation, Pacific Tomato Growers agrees that all growers must do more to prevent the use of forced labor on their farms.