Perhaps not so far from the truth.

On August 19th, the Community Farm Workers Alliance NYC, allied with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida, organized a protest in front of the new Trader Joe’s store in New York City’s Chelsea Neighborhood.  Their goal was to educate shoppers about the extreme and unconscionable abuses farm workers are enduring in their region; Florida tops the nation in the amount of fresh-market tomatoes produced.

Chelsea Now, a local neighborhood publication, was on hand to survey the seen and speak with some of the CIW staff members present.  One of them, Julia Perkins, related some horrifying incidents illustrating how brutal certain farm labor employers can be.  In 2008, two employers were sentenced to 12 years in jail for forcing laborers to sleep in locked trucks overnight, binding their wrists in chains. Perkins explained, “They would close the truck and lock them in overnight with no ventilation, no light and no bathroom facilities —workers were forced to use the corner of the truck. They deducted $5 from their paycheck to wash off with a garden hose out back, and food is deducted as well. It’s horrendous.

This brand of exploitation – the subjugation of workers and their rights to the point of mirroring traditional slavery practices – is executed by those who own and operate farms, but it is important to understand that such crimes are allowed to continue because those who purchase tomatoes in high volume – restaurant chains and grocery chains – either aren’t aware or turn a blind eye. When those buyers choose to begin selecting produce grown with higher labor standards, growers’ profits are threatened unless more humane changes are made.  In effect, the restaurant or supermarket wields the financial power and thus can control, or “own,” the industry standards and the people involved in production.

Here’s where Trader Joe’s comes in.

Through persistent action the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has come to agreements with some of the nation’s largest food companies; as Chelsea Now reports, they include “Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands, the world’s largest restaurant multinational; Burger King; McDonald’s; Subway; Whole Foods; and the food service companies Bon Appétit Management Company, Aramark and Compass Group.”  This impressive corporate lineup has agreed to pay slightly higher prices for tomatoes, potentially doubling workers’ daily income.  Although not a revolution in farm labor standards, it’s certainly a start.  However, Trader Joe’s has so far been unwilling to sign an agreement to help stop the exploitation of workers that pick the tomatoes that appear on their shelves. According to a CIW flyer, “farm workers picking tomatoes for Trader Joe’s chain of supermarkets earn 40-50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they harvest.”  Such a sorrowful total can only amount to impoverished living standards, and Trader Joe’s seems unwilling to share any information on their produce sources.  Only after repeated questioning did the company’s publicist, Alison Mochizuki, respond to Chelsea Now in an email with this message: “At Trader Joe’s, we work with reputable suppliers that have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting if not exceeding government standards throughout all aspects of their businesses.

Perhaps it is a bit confusing to find such a canned, sterile and seemingly contradictory response from a company that projects an image of environmental and social responsibility, producing all-natural and organic foods and providing competitive wage and benefits packages for their own employees.  Even more confusing is their refusal to meet the CIW in their quest for justice, choosing instead to endure public criticism of their core values while placing their reputation in jeopardy.  Why would the apparently progressive Trader Joe’s assume a removed and guarded position on this crucial issue when the more conventional food companies listed above chose to yield to the voices of the people in need of human rights?  Right now only guesses can be made, and until Trader Joe’s heeds this call for change, thousands of poor people living inhuman lives will continue to rise each morning and pick their tomatoes.

-Jeremy Pearson