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

Today, it was unseasonably warm in our city of Boston.  70 degrees, on March 18th.  I am told that this time last year daffodils were struggling to push their buds up through heavy layers of snow.  But it feels great, and brings to mind all the awesome produce that will soon be grown around us, and heading our way from points beyond.  Yes, it is always preferable to grow your own food and purchase  from local farmers.  But here in Massachusetts, not all edibles are grown, even in spring and summer. Like most parts of the country, much of the produce we consume comes from the breadbasket of California, where wide fertile lands and appropriate climate conditions allow the wealth of farm activity we know it to have.

But as the days warm into Summer and the produce begins flowing in, keep California in mind, specifically the conditions on the ground, as it were.  For, year after year, farm workers have been suffering unbearable conditions under the hot sun, some of them dying, mostly due to a complete lack of competence and care for safety on the part of companies and the State.

The regulations which ensure the safe working conditions of farm-workers in California are enforced by its Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA), which has recently been taken to trial by the ACLU for failing to live up to its standards.  The workers in question provide 90 percent of the labor in California’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry, and are routinely deprived of water, shade and rest, having to work outdoors in temperatures that commonly top 100 degrees F! This lawsuit is considered a landmark in that it is focused and comprehensive; California passed a law in 2005 to protect farm-workers from heat illness and death, and yet, according to the LA Times, at least ten individuals have lost their lives since, harvesting the produce that conveniently appears on our cool, climate-controlled grocery shelves.

The situations in which these people die are sad and, due to the need of income for often impoverished families, desperate.  In 2008, one man, Audon Felix Garcia of Bakersfield was found slumped over in his truck with a core body temperature of 108 degrees.  It is elsewhere reported that Garcia had been working on a day with a high of 112 degrees F, and had 15 years of fieldwork experience.  Even more tragic was the death of Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, only 17 at the time, who according to Time magazine, died after picking grapes for nine hours straight in 95-degree heat.    Perhaps one of the most surprising numbers is the staggering fact that out of roughly 35,000 farms in California, only 750 inspections were conducted by Cal/OSHA in a year, as of two summers ago.  There is no real way of telling how may abuses, both lethal and non, have occurred on farms statewide in the grueling summer months; only the stories of the workers themselves would do justice, if they had more means to be heard.

There is more that you can do beyond paying attention to your consumer habits at the market.  A good place to start would be with the United Farm Workers.  One of the main campaign focuses of the UFW, America’s largest farm worker union, founded by Cesar Chavez (whose birthday and California State holiday in his name is celebrated in a few weeks on March 31st) in 1962, is promoting the awareness of heat-related injuries and deaths of employees on company-owned farms.  They stand behind the ACLU lawsuit and are a strong voice of testimony and non-violent action in establishing the right to a safe agricultural workplace. You can easily sign petitions for the movement on their site which get sent to relevant politicians and manufacturers, as well as keep abreast of the issue and see how your own voice of protest affects the lives of those who work extremely hard hand-selecting the fruits and veggies that end up on your plate.

-Jeremy Pearson

This past April 2008 a major victory in the anti-sweatshop move was completed. Congress voted in a bill to be signed into law that will extend US Federal Immigration and Labor Laws in the US territory, Mariana Islands. The Mariana Islands have been known to have some of the worst labor abuses in the world.
Location of the Mariana Islands 

The islands were used as a haven for many Chinese sweatshops to set up camp. The products produced there were used to deceive US consumers, since they carried the “Made in USA” tags. People consciously attempting to buy only US made clothing and other goods were mislead by the seemingly sweatshop free items. Throughout the 1990’s, anti-sweatshop activists and lobbyists worked to end these labor abuses and the deception of consumers but to no avail thanks to people like Jack Abramoff

However, thanks to the efforts of many anti-sweatshop groups including Co-op America the Mariana Islands’ workforce is now protected under the same laws as any of us hard working Americans. To learn more about the Mariana Island human rights movement, please check out the blog Unheard No More. For more information on ending sweatshops and how you can help, check out Co-op America’s Ending Sweatshops Guide or Sweatshop Watch.

Also, remember that many times the only way to wake a company up is by boycotting them and supporting companies that participate in fair labor and human rights. Remember Autonomie Project when you are looking for new footwear, bags, or clothing(coming soon) or any of these other wonderful companies listed on SweatFree Communities 2008 Shop with a Conscience Consumer Guide!

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