the true cost of tomatoes, or slavery and poverty continue to haunt the fast-food industry, and how you can help

I have blogged several times about the horrific conditions endured by the people who pick tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida, working for fast-food giants like Burger King, Taco Bell and McDonald's, and supermarket giants like Kroger, Stop & Shop, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. For important background, see the norm is disaster, the extreme is slavery, and a side order of human rights. (An update on one point in that earlier post: in April of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that migrant farm workers do not have the right to unionize. It would cause the farmers too much hardship!)

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been campaigning for some head-slappingly obvious improvements, like ending slavery - not "slave-like conditions", but actual slavery - and a "penny-a-pound" wage increase. The penny-a-pound, paid for not by growers but by the mega-corporations that contract them, amounts to a huge wage increase for the impoverished workers, yet costs the corporations less than $300,000 annually. These are companies that reap upwards of two billion dollars in revenue each year, so $300,000 is something like a looney to you and me.

Mark Bittman - "The Minimalist" chef and food writer par excellence - reports that the campaign is working, but it needs our help. In this excellent essay, Bittman draws the inextricable connections between labour, food, health and the environment that pervades this issue. This is an excerpt from Bittman's "The True Cost of Tomatoes"; I hope you'll click through and read the whole thing.
Mass-produced tomatoes have become redder, more tender and slightly more flavorful than the crunchy orange “cello-wrapped” specimens of a couple of decades ago, but the lives of the workers who grow and pick them haven’t improved much since Edward R. Murrow’s revealing and deservedly famous Harvest of Shame report of 1960, which contained the infamous quote, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

But bit by bit things have improved some, a story that’s told in detail and with insight and compassion by Barry Estabrook in his new book, “Tomatoland.” We can actually help them improve further. . . .

Most of the big purchasers, like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, want firm, “slicing” tomatoes, because their destination is a burger or a sandwich, so the tomatoes are picked at what is called “mature green,” which isn’t mature at all but bordering on it. Tomatoes with any color other than green are too ripe to ship, and left to rot; I’ve posted a couple of pictures I took of those on my blog. The green tomatoes are gassed — “de-greened” is the chosen euphemism — to “ripen” them; the plants themselves are often killed with an herbicide to hasten their demise and get ready for the next crop.

The process, not to put too fine a point on it, is awful, but the demand is there — Florida ships about a billion pounds of tomatoes a year — and the main question has not been quality but fairness to the workers. (Estabrook profiles a successful Florida tomato farmer who’s gone organic, but since it’s inarguable that this is a locale and climate that’s hostile to tomatoes in the first place, that can’t be easy. Here’s the reality: you’re not going to get a billion pounds of good tomatoes out of Florida. Ever.)

Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid.

One of the bright spots, discussed in Estabrook’s book is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), founded in 1993. The CIW has two major goals: the first is to put the last nail in the coffin of slavery, a condition that sadly still exists not only among farmworkers but others. “And this,” Laura Germino, who has worked on the campaign since its inception, said to me when I visited last month, “is not ‘slavery-like,’ or ‘exploitation’ — it’s actual slavery, as defined by federal law.” (There are super links around this issue on the anti-slavery campaign’s Web site, and reading them is eye-popping.)

You’ve probably heard of the other goal, which is the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food; it’s garnered as much attention as any labor struggle in the country in recent years, and more on the farmworker front than anything since the early work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

These outrages have been the CIW’s focus, and the agreement they signed last November with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange begins to address them: through the core “penny-a-pound” increase in the price wholesale purchasers pay, workers’ incomes could go up thousands of dollars per year. The agreement also provides for a time-clock system in the fields, which has led to a shorter workday and less (unpaid) waiting time; portable shade tents for breaks (unbelievable that this didn’t exist previously — I spent a half-hour in the open fields and began to melt); reduced exposure to pesticides; worker-to-worker education on rights; a new code of conduct for growers with real market consequences if workers’ rights are violated; and more.

The breakthrough for the CIW came in 2005, when after enormous consumer pressure Yum! Brands, which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, signed the agreement. (And you know what? Good for them.) Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, the country’s largest food service operators (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) and Whole Foods have signed as well.

Progress, clearly. What’s missing are traditional supermarket chains, and the CIW has targeted — largely for geographical reasons — Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s, which, in an attempt at “transparency” (odd for a chain known for its secrecy), published a letter explaining why it was refusing to sign the agreement. Really, guys? If McDonald’s and Burger King can sign a labor agreement, it can’t be that onerous; you should do it just for karma’s sake.
Read it here: The True Cost of Tomatoes.

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