AlterPolitics New Post

Fair Trade Comes Home: Fair Food Program Works To End Exploitation Of U.S. Farmworkers

by on Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm EDT in Economy, Labor, Politics, Trade Policy

Most coffee and chocolate aficionados are generally well-versed on the Fair Trade movement, which organized to offer producers in developing countries better trade deals than would normally be offered to them by large corporate purchasers. 

Today’s massive food conglomerates routinely leverage their purchasing power to negotiate prices so low as to all but ensure farmworkers suffer dire working conditions and sub-poverty wages.

In contrast, Fair trade agreements pay these farms a premium for their products, while contractually obligating them to provide better working conditions and wages to their employees (including the rights to organize), and to promote superior environmental standards. 

Yet, within the very borders of the United States, many farm workers continue to suffer from similar exploitation and deplorable working conditions. These mostly-migrant workers often have limited English-proficiency and questionable citizenship status, making them powerless to bargain for better conditions, or even to seek recourse when their employers violate federal and state labor laws. 

The National Center For Farmworker Health found that 72% of all farmworkers in America were foreign born, earned between $12,500 – $14,999 per year on average, and 92% of them received no employer-provided health insurance — despite physically-demanding, high-risk work conditions.

Meet the Fair Food Program (FFP)

Driven by the same human-rights concerns as the Fair Trade movement, FFP activists pressure large ‘market-influencing’ purchasers of agricultural products to sign Fair Food Agreements that improve wages and working conditions of farmworkers in America.  

The organization spearheading this effort is The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — an organized tomato farmworker group based in Immokalee, Florida. The group describes itself as “a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.”

The Florida agricultural industry has a long well-documented record of human-rights abuses, including nine cases prosecuted for slave-labor in the past 15 years alone. 

CIW organized in 1993 to overcome the industry’s exploitation, and their efforts have proven to be highly successful. Over ninety percent of the Florida tomato farming industry now participates in the Fair Food Program. And as Florida FFP tomatoes begin to ring synonymous with fair labor practices the movement has the potential to spread into other farming industries and states.

Consider the marketing advantages that ‘Fair Trade’-designated coffees enjoy in the billion dollar U.S. coffee industry, where millions of American consumers expect to buy nothing less than Fair Trade. This demand has lured many coffee roasters and coffee shops alike to make the extra effort and expend additional monies to offer Fair Trade selections.

The major grocers and restaurant chains who sign CIW’s Fair Food Agreement commit to purchase all their Florida tomatoes exclusively from farms that participate in FFP, which in turn gives holdout Florida tomato farms incentive to join as well. 

There are 7 major elements to the Fair Food Program

  • A pay increase supported by the price premium Participating Buyers pay for their tomatoes;
  • Compliance with the Code of Conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor;
  • Worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW on the farms and on company time to insure workers understand their new rights and responsibilities;
  • A worker-triggered complaint resolution mechanism leading to complaint investigation, corrective action plans, and, if necessary, suspension of a farm’s Participating Grower status, and thereby its ability to sell to Participating Buyers;
  • A system of Health and Safety volunteers on every farm to give workers a structured voice in the shape of their work environment;
  • Specific and concrete changes in harvesting operations to improve workers’ wages and working conditions, including an end to the age-old practice of forced overfilling of picking buckets (a practice which effectively denied workers pay for up to 10% of the tomatoes harvested), shade in the fields, and time clocks to record and count all compensable hours accurately.
  • Ongoing auditing of the farms to insure compliance with each element of the FFP.

Some of the methods CIW employs to pressure large retailers and restaurant chains into joining the program include: letter-writing campaigns, massive boycotts, highly-visible store and restaurant protests (not just in Florida, but across the country), and by educating the public about the heinous working conditions of farmworkers in the tomato industry. The group enjoys tremendous support from students, religious groups, labor groups, and community organizations across the United States. 

Last week, following a 6-year-long campaign, CIW finally convinced Chipotle Mexican Grill, which operates under the “Food with Integrity” slogan, to sign the Fair Food Agreement, agreeing to pay a pennies-per-pound premium to help raise tomato workers’ wages across the state of Florida. With over 1,200 restaurants and $2.3 billion in revenues, this chain’s signature is a major victory for the FFP movement.

CIW member Nely Rodriguez explains how having powerful corporations like Chipotle as FFP members helps to end farmworker abuse:

“… [I]f there are any human rights violations in Florida’s fields, against women being sexually assaulted, for example, Chipotle now has the responsibility to hold the grower to the code of conduct, and stop the misconduct. There are now market consequences for abuse.” […]

Chipotle joins ten other major corporations who similarly concluded that indirectly profiting from inhumane labor conditions is just not good business:

Yum Brands [includes Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC] (2005), McDonald’s (2007), Burger King (2008), Subway (2008), Whole Foods Market (2008), Bon Appetit Management Company (2009), Compass Group (2009), Aramark (2010), Sodexo (2010), Trader Joe’s (2012), and Chipotle (2012) are participating in the Fair Food Program.

All eleven companies have agreed to pay a premium price for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to shift their Florida tomato purchases to growers who comply with the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

Edits: Per Claire Comiskey (from Interfaith Action in Immokalee — which works closely with CIW), the following errors have been corrected: 1. CIW engaged in a 6-year-long campaign with Chipotle (article previously described as ‘9-year-long campaign’). 2. The nine cases prosecuted for slave labor in the past 15 years occurred within the Florida agricultural industry (article previously reported within the Florida tomato industry).

VIDEO: Here Is What Unregulated, Non-Unionized Capitalism Looks Like: Apple’s iFactory In China

by on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm EDT in Economy, Labor, Politics

Suicide nets under every window.

Conservatives have long derided organized labor and business regulations as some sort of insidious ‘socialist’ cancer that stymies innovation, fleeces hardworking business owners, crushes prosperity and investment capital, and dampens economies with high inflation and high unemployment.

They contend that when corporations are left unburdened by oversight and regulations, to pursue their own profit-maximizing interests, that this will always — as if by an invisible magical hand — optimize the interests of the society in which they operate. 

Obscenely naive or deeply disingenuous, this ideology has been disproved over and over again, since the beginning of the industrial age. In a global economy, the moment a nation catches on — usually when its citizens’ quality of life deteriorates to the point of social unrest — and moves to remedy the situation with more regulations, and by easing organized labor restrictions, the corporations begin to look around to other developing countries for exploitative opportunities.

This now familiar business cycle is especially prominent in sectors that require an educated and highly skilled workforce. This is because higher education is generally funded, not by corporations or government, but by labor itself. This limits the supply of skilled labor, and forces corporations to compete with one another for these self-educated workers, thereby pushing wages upwards.

But unlike labor, who are restricted by national borders in search for employment, corporations are free to roam the world for cheap labor. And corporations have no loyalty to the citizens who reside within the countries they operate. Why pay a premium for an employee with a unique level of expertise, when potential employees with similar skill-sets are being grotesquely undervalued overseas? After all, a corporation’s charter commands it to exploit resources and labor as cheaply as is possible in order to maximize profits. 

At the moment, China happens to be one of those developing nations with a massive poverty-stricken population — ripe for corporate exploitation. 

And what better iconic ‘American’ corporation, but Apple — manufacturer of the world’s most beloved technology products and gadgets — to demonstrate this corporate flight towards labor-exploitative opportunities.

China is a country which conservatives would consider an ideal, unregulated, business-friendly environment. Rather than demanding China raise its labor standards, conservatives would rather weaken U.S. labor standards to be more like China. The conservative plan for bringing jobs home is little more than a race to the bottom. By union busting, cutting government jobs, and further deregulation, American workers will find themselves as powerless and exploitable as our counterparts in developing countries. This, they believe, will make America more ‘competitive.’ This is their ‘free market’ ideology, in a nutshell.

In the following video, ABC’s Nightline was granted unprecedented access to Apple’s factories (owned by FoxCon) inside China. When you see the conditions in which these employees operate, you realize why decent paying American jobs are disappearing, and, as Apple’s recently-deceased CEO admitted to President Obama, “they aren’t coming back.” You begin to understand why young Americans are now questioning whether it even makes economic sense to assume huge amounts of debt in pursuit of higher education.

If you take one thing away from this video, I hope it is that this is not merely an American problem. It is a world problem. The only way to raise the living standards of Americans will be to raise it for everyone else in the world, because this is truly a global economy. And that process begins with rewriting all of our trade deals in ways that empower workers in every single nation, across the world. 

Some highlights from Nightline’s reporting:

  • Apple’s Chinese employees work 12-hour shifts, broken up by two-hour meal breaks, and often seven days per week.
  • Employees work so long and so hard on the assembly line, that most eat their 70 cent meals at the company canteen quickly, so they can catch up on lost sleep at their work stations. (the video shows them all sleeping side-by-side during their lunch break)
  • Many employees live in dorm rooms, shared by seven other workers, and will each pay $17.50 per month for this. This allows Apple to have workers on-call 24-7, in case they ever need to quickly scale-up production, at a moment’s notice.
  • Most employees have left their families to work here.
  • Suicide nets‘ have been installed under the windows of all FoxCon employees to prevent them from killing themselves. A year ago, nine employees jumped to their deaths in the span of 3 months.
  • Last year, poorly ventilated aluminum ducts, which the company had been warned about by human rights groups (an accusation the company does not deny), caused two separate explosions in iPad polishing stations, killing four employees and injuring seventy-seven.
  • Literally thousands of people (over three thousand on this particular Monday) line up daily at FoxCon’s recruitment center, waiting hours on end, and many carrying suitcases. They are desperate to work there for $1.78 per hour. Demand for Apple products is so high, that FoxCon will hire 80% of them.
  • To help manage the controversy that erupted after the NY Times’ recent article, In China, Human Costs Are Built Into An iPod, Apple joined the Fair Labor Association. But Apple paid the group $250k to join, and also pays for all its pre-arranged — never by surprise — audits, leading many to believe there is a deep conflict of interest, and is little more than a ploy to whitewash their labor practices.
  • ABC revealed most all of the employees they spoke with complained about their low-pay, expensive lunch prices, and crowded dorms, but there was nothing they could do about it, as unions don’t exist there.

Sounds like a Conservative Utopia!