Protesters are sour on Trader Joe’s tomatoes

BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK | About a dozen protesters dressed like giant tomatoes danced and rapped to the beat of Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam” in front of the East 14th Street Trader Joe’s on Saturday, December 3. The big reds are part of an ongoing campaign against the supermarket chain’s refusal to collaborate with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and sign their Fair Food agreement — which includes paying tomato pickers one cent more per pound and protecting them against labor rights violations.

Said tomato Lupe Rodriguez of her new pumped-up lyrics for the occasion, “It’s really important for people to be able to connect and participate with the Trader Joe’s campaign, especially in a humorous way.” Rodriguez and fellow protesters are members of the Community/Farmworker Alliance (NYC) — a local coalition of community members that organizes in solidarity with the CIW in their Campaign for Fair Food. “I am involved with CIW because as a consumer, a tomato lover and coming from a farmworker family background, it is my responsibility to work together with farmworkers,” said Rodriguez. “I am deeply inspired by the CIW because not only are agricultural workers leading a powerful change to improve their lives, but every day across the country, they are putting food on the table for thousands of families.”

The tuneful tomatoes distributed Christmas cards addressed to Trader Joe’s press-averse CEO Dan Bane (corporate headquarters are in Monrovia, Ca.) and encouraged entering and exiting shoppers to “Get your booty to sign the Fair Food agreement/Make my day.” CFA organizer Amanda Bell, a third-year law student at Columbia University (and former CIW summer intern), said in a telephone interview that people were happy to sign the card.

Bell asserted that farmworkers on average make less than $12,000 a year and are not eligible for overtime pay despite working 14 hours a day under harsh conditions. They typically earn 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes — a rate that has virtually unchanged for three decades. “It’s more than just the money involved,” Bell added. They are also subject to labor rights violations, including modern-day slavery. (See Chelsea Now, “Protest Questions Human Cost of Trader Joe’s Cheap Tomatoes,” August 11, 2010.)

With the assistance of the CIW, federal civil rights officials have successfully prosecuted seven farm slavery operations in Florida’s fields involving more than 1,000 workers since 1997 — in addition to two forced labor rings in 2010 alone — prompting one federal prosecutor to call the Sunshine State “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” The CIW has also aided in many successful prosecutions of human traffickers by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The CIW is a farmer-led organization of mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants based in Immokalee, Collier County (southwest Florida) since 1993. Immokalee, a vast agri-business area, is a leading supplier of winter tomatoes sold to New York consumers by Trader Joe’s and other outlets. In 2001, CIW farmworkers launched their first-ever Campaign for Fair Food, targeting Taco Bell, since as a major corporate buyer of fruits and vegetables, it could leverage its buying power for the betterment of farmworker wages and working conditions. After four years, in March 2005, Taco Bell acceded to CIW’s demands. McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, the other major fast-food leaders, followed suit. Whole Foods signed on in September 2008 (the first in the supermarket industry) and in June 2009, the chain announced that it had secured the cooperation of two of Florida’s largest organic growers, Alderman Farms and Lady Moon Farms. Food-service industry leaders Bon Appétit Management Company, Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo, as well as East Coast Growers, the third largest tomato producer in Florida, have also become signatories.

Since Chelsea Now last reported on the protest at the Sixth Avenue and West 21st Street Trader Joe’s (“Protesters Give the Raspberry to Trader Joe’s Florida Tomatoes,” August 25, 2010), the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which had been actively opposed, approved the accord in November 2010. The agreements are slated to go into effect across more than 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry during this winter’s 2011-2012 growing season.

The agreement includes a penny-per-pound wage increase, a strict code of conduct (protections against sexual harassment for women and labor rights violations), a complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program and worker-to-worker education — and such elementary rights as having a break in the shade instead of sitting next to the tomato plants, not working during a lightning storm and access to a toilet with toilet paper and soap. In addition, workers no longer have to overfill the bucket, which was a source of friction and violence by crew leaders (they will fill it only to the rim, which will give workers a little more earning power at the end of the day).

Trader Joe’s has been feeling the heat from the numerous protests and consumer inquiries and finally responded to customers on its website. On May 11, the post stated that the CIW agreement “is overreaching, ambiguous and improper.” They explained that they only buy five Florida tomatoes (approximately three million pounds) during the growing season, generally from October to May, and their wholesalers have indicated they are willing to pass along an extra penny per pound to the workers. “The expressed goals of the CIW that were indicated in their presentation at the Georgetown University Conference on the ‘Future of Food’ as posted on the CIW website on May 10, 2011, can be met by a readily available relationship between our wholesalers and the growers. This relationship will be supported and endorsed by Trader Joe’s.”

In the October 23 post, “Update about Florida Tomatoes,” they reiterated that they buy “only from growers signed on to and abiding by the CIW Fair Food Code of Conduct…we have contracted directly with the two growers who employ the workers that harvest the tomatoes we sell [and they] have signed agreements.

However, they will not work directly with the CIW. “The CIW, an entity with which we have no business relationship, continues to demand that we sign an agreement with them that is unacceptable to us for reasons we presented in May,” they stated. (For a full explanation of their reasons, go to traderjoes.com.)

Chelsea Now emailed Alison Mochizuki, Trader Joe’s director of national public relations, for further information. She responded, “At this time, we do not have any additional comments,” and included the October 23 statement in the body of the email.

Trader Joe’s is a privately held chain owned by Germany’s “ultra-private” Albrecht family — which is notorious in Germany for not talking to the press, according to “Inside the secret world of Trader Joe’s,” on CNNMoney (money.cnn.com; the online site for Fortune and Money magazines) on August 23, 2010. “The company has never participated in a major story about its business operations…. In exchange, suppliers have to agree to operate under Trader Joe’s cloak of secrecy,” the article reported. A standard vendor agreement states that the vendor “shall not publicize its business relationship with TJ’s in any manner.” (TJ founder Joe Coulombe sold his company to the late Theo Albrecht in 1979 for an undisclosed amount. Sales in 2010 were roughly $8 billion, according to Fortune 500, which listed the company at 314.)

Gerardo Reyes, a tomato farmworker and CIW staff member to whom Chelsea Now spoke in Immokalee, had a lot of questions for Trader Joe’s. “What are they going to do if there is a case of slavery? Are they going to enforce the mechanism that they don’t even have in place? How are they going to communicate with farmers?” Reyes asked. “Trader Joe’s can give a really big show and use a lot of shiny words to say they are responsible, but without the participation of the worker, how are they going to see what’s going on? Everything they say is PR when we are talking about labor rights and human rights.”

Reyes further indicated that without a verification system there is no way to know that Trader Joe’s is covering every pound and making sure distribution goes accordingly at the end of the week. “And there is no guarantee they are going to do it forever. Our agreement doesn’t have an expiration date. How are they going to be accountable? We are demanding transparency, using the tools that we have created according to the codes,” he said.

Tomatoes are one of Florida’s main crops and where most of the work is. (Oranges are becoming more and more mechanized.) For this reason, the CIW chose to focus on this industry. Many of the agricultural businesses produce other crops besides tomatoes, but the agreement only covers tomatoes and only in Florida. “It would be ironic if one company is found guilty of conditions in other production,” said Reyes. “We are forcing them to change without directly aiming at other crops. And if there are abuses in other places, whether they are covered or not, it is going to be a huge contradiction for them to explain. They can’t do business as usual.”

Reyes indicated that he is pleased there are so many people across the country that support the CIW campaign and is very excited about all the changes happening in the tomato industry with the participating tomato growers. “The protest in New York is proof of that,” he said.

“But it is vital for the supermarket industry to sign to make sure the penny-per-pound and rights are established in the right way without any possibility for the farms to be on the fence,” he added. “Trader Joe’s is offering an escape door for those who refuse to change their ways. It’s ironic that a company that claims to be progressive threatens to undermine the agreement.”

For more information, visit ciw-online.org, cfa-nyc.org and traderjoes.com.

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