ANALYSIS: The Fresh Market agreement, the LA Times series, and the preferential option for Fair Food…

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In the wake of the blockbuster LA Times series exposing brutal, humiliating labor conditions in Mexico’s produce fields, US consumers — and the major retail food companies that buy and sell tens of millions of pounds of tomatoes every year — have an increasingly clear choice to make between the exploitation of human beings and the protection of human rights.

Fair Food Program in Florida’s tomato industry points the way for Mexican produce industry out of human rights crisis toward 21st century social responsibility; 

The question remains: Given Mexico’s deeper societal problems, is reform even possible?

We’d like to begin this post with something a bit different, a real time anecdote straight from the Fair Food Program’s data base.  The data base is a rich, unparalleled compilation of information about he Florida tomato industry compiled over time through worker complaints, interviews, and investigations.  This January 6th, a woman called the CIW, not with a complaint, but with a comment, which happens more often than one would think.  Here is the data base entry for her call (the caller’s name and those of the two companies she mentions have been deleted):

A worker, _____ , called the CIW office on January 6, 2015.  She now works in tomatoes at ____ Farms.  She had previously worked in strawberries at ____ Farms and was fired for missing two days of work.  She said that, in that company, you were never allowed to rest, there was no water, and the bathrooms were very far away.  Every day, the supervisors and crew leaders would yell at workers, and fired many people on the spot for complaining.  At ____, “it is beautiful”.  There is “attention paid” to how workers are doing.  “There is water, we have bathrooms and shade, and the best part is that they pay the bonus to workers every week.  Anywhere from $50 or $60 or $70 a week.” She said, “It is a very good company.  What a difference.”

A Fair Food Standards Council investigator, left, speaks with a worker on a participating farm during a 2014 Fair Food Program audit.

Choice is good…

Although it is a bit off topic — speaking specifically to the differences here in Florida between the tomato industry, where the Fair Food Program is now entering its fourth season, and the strawberry industry, where no reform has taken place and conditions remain antiquated and harsh — we began with that anecdote because it dramatically underscores the power of choice.  

As a farmworker in Florida today, the woman who called has a choice between two very different worlds of employment, thanks to the Fair Food Program.  With more modern, more humane conditions now firmly taking root across the Fair Food Program’s participating farms, Florida’s tomato industry is quickly becoming the employer of choice in the state’s broader agricultural industry, and that fact is putting increasing pressure on growers in other crops to improve conditions in their own operations.  

Once respect and dignity are unleashed, they, like the proverbial genie from the bottle, cannot be contained.

In the Fair Food movement, the protection and expansion of fundamental human rights was driven for over two decades by tireless organizing, first in Immokalee, then across the country.  In more recent years — now that more humane conditions have finally been established and Fair Food tomatoes can be found in stores — that process is reinforced by the rational choices of uncounted workers, and consumers, every day. 

A preferential option for Fair Food can help change farmworkers’ lives in Mexico, too…

Following last month’s explosive investigative series on widespread labor abuse in Mexico’s produce industry, the LA Times asked the CIW for a brief opinion piece on how Mexican farmworkers might one day win the kind of rights workers enjoy in Florida’s tomato fields today. That piece was published this past Sunday, and we include it here in its entirety:

Retail Food Industry Leaders Can Change the Industry

U.S. demand built the Mexican produce export industry; U.S. demand can rebuild it, too, if the buyers are willing. It’s that simple.

That’s not to say it will be easy.

Mexico is a mess. Unconscionable exploitation in the produce industry is just the immediate problem. Unchecked political corruption and hyper drug violence — the twin pillars of what Mexican social critics call the country’s “culture of impunity” — form the backdrop against which everything else takes place in Mexico today.

Given those challenges — indeed, precisely because of them — American food corporations may be the only force politically independent and economically powerful enough to effect change. Those companies must, without delay, condition their purchases on the demonstrable respect for human rights, because creating immediate market consequences for human rights violations is the only real hope for eliminating and preventing those violations in the future. Only then can workers play a meaningful role in protecting their own rights in Mexico’s fields, the real key to establishing ethical labor standards.

This is not just wishful thinking. It is informed by the transformation of Florida’s tomato industry through the Fair Food Program — a worker-driven social responsibility program in which binding contracts with retail food corporations establish the market consequences for labor violations. It worked where nothing else had.

Pedro Vasquez, working the chile pepper fields near Leon, Guanajuato, is one of the estimated 100,000 Mexican children younger than 14 who pick crops for pay, according to the government’s most recent estimate. He is 9 years old. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

But if the Los Angeles Times’ “Product of Mexico” series comes and goes without spurring changes in the way U.S. corporations buy Mexican produce, then the market is incapable of healing itself. That’s how it was here for generations despite the steady drumbeat of media attention exposing Florida’s “Harvest of Shame.” In that case, consumers are the last line of defense. And when consumers speak with a clear, powerful voice, the entire market, from buyers on down, has no choice but to listen.

And what does it mean for US retail food companies to “condition their purchases on the demonstrable respect for human rights”?

We answered that question earlier this month in the third installment of our own three-part series on the LA Times report:

1.  Short-term: Shift purchases immediately, to the extent feasible, to Florida.  Clearly, given the degree of dependence of the US retail market today on Mexican imports, it is not possible to suspend all purchases from Mexico until conditions improve there.  But a strong message must be sent, and that message must be unmistakable: The outrageous exploitation exposed in the LA Times series is not acceptable, and until real measures to protect fundamental human rights are in place there, business as usual is impossible.  The only way to send that message credibly, in a way that growers will take it to heart, is by disrupting their sales.  Given that the Florida tomato industry has undergone an unprecedented transformation over the past several seasons thanks to its participation in the Fair Food Program — from “ground zero for modern-day slavery” just a few years ago to what has been called “possibly the best working environment in American agriculture” on the front page of the New York Times this past year — the choice for where to shift those purchases couldn’t be clearer.  Florida tomatoes today are simply better than those from Mexico, precisely because they do not carry the invisible poison of human rights abuse. Until human rights for farmworkers are a priority in Mexico as they are today in Florida, US food retailers must give Florida tomato growers an unequivocal preference.  That much is a no-brainer. 

In short, the market — rewarding growers who demonstrate verifiable respect for their workers’ human rights and rejecting those who refuse to reform — has the power to demand change.  

A worker punches in at Pacific Tomato Growers in Immokalee. Time clocks in the fields are a requirement of the Fair Food Code of Conduct and have helped eliminate the longstanding problem of unpaid waiting time in Florida’s tomato industry. Photo by Smriti Keshari.

But will it?

Fresh Market agreement points the way…

If the CIW’s latest agreement is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.

Last week, the CIW and Fresh Market announced the Fair Food Program’s first new partnership of 2015, and the agreement included some groundbreaking new provisions, including one that goes directly to the question of the preferential purchasing of fairly-harvested produce.  To quote from the joint press release:

The collaboration breaks new ground in the CIW’s award-winning Fair Food Program in two significant ways. First, starting with the 2015-2016 season, The Fresh Market will increase its purchases by 15% year-over-year from Florida tomato growers participating in the Fair Food Program. This is an important new precedent that recognizes and supports growers who are making significant investments to improve labor conditions on their farms with increased market share.

The Fresh Market’s Vice President for Marketing, Lee Arthur, explained the company’s decision to join the Fair Food Program and why it chose to support Florida’s tomato growers:

“We are pleased to enter into this partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and to be a part of the Fair Food Program…  We continuously look for ways to source the best products, and being a part of the FFP helps us to know we are sourcing from growers whose practices are fair and socially responsible. This allows us to provide our customers with food they can feel good about purchasing and enjoy sharing with friends and family.”

It’s that simple — “being a part of the FFP helps us to know we are sourcing from growers whose practices are fair and socially responsible.”  

A Fair Food Standards Council auditor (left) speaks with a worker in a Fair Food Program field. Photo by Smriti Keshari.

In the wake of the LA Times series, the differences between the Mexican and the Florida tomato industries couldn’t be more stark.  In Mexico, outrageous human rights violations are the norm and effective monitoring and enforcement of labor rights remain a distant dream due to the virtual anarchy that has gripped the country as a whole for more than a decade.  Corruption and drug violence have left the rule of law in shambles there, rendering any claims to social responsibility in the Mexican produce industry at best unverifiable and, at worst, a knowing deception.  

In Florida, on the other hand, workers, growers, and retailers have — after two decades of often bitter conflict — forged a unique partnership for human rights, one that draws on the distinct strengths and resources of all three of its partners.  In the Fair Food Program, workers act as frontline defenders of their own rights, growers invest significant new resources in order to modernize their operations, and retailers both help fund a much-needed wage increase and commit to condition their purchase on compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct.  The Fair Food Standards Council monitors and enforces the human rights standards and the Program continues to mature, standing in 2015 on the threshold of expansion to crops beyond tomatoes and states other than Florida.  After generations of unchecked labor rights abuses ranging from rampant sexual harassment to modern-day slavery, respect for human rights in Florida is now the norm, and when violations do occur, there is a process in place to quickly and effectively remedy those violations and fix their systemic causes.

With the differences this stark, the choice for US retail food corporations is clear.  And by exercising that choice, those companies can not only, in the words of Fresh Market’s Lee Arthur, provide their “customers with food they can feel good about purchasing and enjoy sharing with friends and family,” but they can also send a powerful message to the Mexican produce industry, one they can no longer afford to ignore.  

The CIW’s agreement with Fresh Market is the first to institutionalize this measurable purchasing preference for Fair Food.  But it will most certainly not be the last.