In Immokalee, Florida, the per capita income is only $9,700 per year; half of the town’s population lives below the federal poverty line. Accusations of slave labor have been made as farmers are charged with holding people against their will, forcing them to work, beating or killing them if they tried to escape, and knowing that they can have this control over them because the workers don’t have any means to save themselves.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is doing their best to make conditions better, by training local, state, and federal law enforcement to investigate and prosecute existing slavery operations. The CIW also focuses on the root causes of the problem which are farm workers’ structural powerlessness and grinding poverty.
While fast food companies like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, as well as Whole Foods and other major corporations, have agreed to support the actions of the CIW in reducing the plight of these workers, Chipotle and Trader Joe’s address the issue with stubborn evasiveness.
Ironic and disconcerting: Trader Joe’s is a leading retailer of organically certified products and Chipotle advertizes on the slogan “Food with Integrity.” From Chipotle’s website: “We can talk about all of the procedures and protocols we follow and how important they are – but it all really comes back to the people behind every ingredient we purchase, burrito we make, and customer we serve.”
In a written statement about its disinterest in partnering with CIW, Trader Joe’s says that they do not sign agreements that allow third party organizations to dictate what is right for their customers. Chipotle echoed this claim. I agree with Eric Schlosser who was quoted as saying,
“Claiming you support farm-worker rights but refusing to work with CIW is like someone in the ’60s saying they support civil rights but they won’t work with Martin Luther King, Jr. or the NAACP.”
This issue stirs up perhaps the largest barrier to a more sustainable food system: information. Ever since it has been en vogue to be “green,” companies have been abusing this term and profiting from it in elaborate marketing schemes. A “free-range” chicken could perhaps just be allowed the option to roam outside but does not take advantage of this option because its hormone-induced body has grown so fat its legs have collapsed under its own weight. Putting “integrity” in an advertisement is counterintuitive. If Chipotle truly has integrity it would take some money out of its advertising budget and just pay whatever more they have to pay to insure more human labor standards.
What really got me was Chipotle’s “Take it Back to the Start” advertisement. As the three clearly well-fed Caucasian farmers linked hands at the end of the sentimental advertising stint, I could not help but be haunted by Eric Schlosser’s question at last year’s Slow Food Nation conference:
“Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested with slave labor?”
I applaud Chipotle for publicizing the need to “Take it Back to the Start” and I am sure that Chipotle does purchase some more sustainable produce than other fast food restaurants. On the same note, Trader Joe’s allows an accessible way for people to eat more sustainably as well. However, there is no excuse for their lack of support for human standards and for the CIW. Moreover, it would appear that Chipotle and Trader Joe’s corporate greed would be better served by supporting the CIW and forgoing bad publicity than by being stingy about minor CIW demands and sticking to a stubborn evasion of this human rights outrage.
By: Leslie Horwitz
(Photo by Nick Buxton under a Creative Commons license)