In the latest issue of Food, Nutrition and Science, how is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers fighting to making a difference in farm worker poverty, and how much or little will it cost retailers?
Farm labor remains among the worst paid, least protected jobs in the country. With few or no benefits, hard, back breaking work, and no job security, farm workers barely make $12,000 a year, and are excluded from overtime pay and collective bargaining. And this is something that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is working unrelentingly to change.
The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. The majority of their approximately 5,000 members work for large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests and travel along the entire East Coast following the harvest in season. They are calling their movement the “Campaign for Fair Food,” and it begins with a simple premise: diagnose what makes farmworkers poor, and redirect those forces in ways that reduces farmworker poverty.
At the heart of the matter is the volume purchasing practices of today’s retail food giants, which create downward pressure on produce prices at the farm level. Grocers are able to provide produce at cheaper amounts for their customers, but this means that farmworkers earn lower wages. Big grocers compete to raise their profits by keeping prices low and bringing customers in. As a result, the CIW says that the nation’s two to three million farmworkers ultimately pay the price.
“We started to ask the economist's question of ‘Why’ – Why are farmworkers poor? And once we started to ask that question, we began to see past the farm gate, beyond the immediate conflict, and the problem took on a new dimension. We began to see not only that that the consolidation and volume purchasing practices in the food industry were directly perpetuating farmworker poverty, but also how just a small change in prices at the top of the food industry could reverse this process of impoverishment and bring about a huge change at the bottom, in communities like Immokalee. And it was with this new understanding that we launched the Campaign for Fair Food,” says Gerardo Reyes, member of the CIW.
According to CIW, the retail food giants today – companies like, but not limited to Kroger, Ahold USA, and Publix – buy tens of millions of pounds of tomatoes a year. At those historically unprecedented volumes, they are buying an ever-bigger share of any single grower’s production and are therefore able to leverage that tremendous market power to demand ever-lower prices from their suppliers. Yet those suppliers, at the same time, are faced with rising input costs for diesel fuel, tractors, land, and pesticides. Caught in this cost/price squeeze, the only place growers can turn to maintain shrinking margins is to labor.
“It isn't that the retail chains set out to impoverish farmworkers. It's just that in the regular course of competing against each other for market dominance, they fight for the lowest prices possible from their suppliers,” says Reyes.
The Campaign for Fair Food wants retailers to pay one more penny per pound of tomatoes so that they can increase farmworker wages and leverage consumer purchasing power to push for more modern working conditions from their Florida suppliers. To date, ten retail food corporations have signed binding agreements to participate in the Fair Food Program, including McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has also signed an agreement to extend CIW’s Fair Food principles, including a code of conduct, a participatory health and safety program, a cooperative complaint resolution system, and a worker-to-worker education process, to over 90% of Florida’s tomato fields.
Reyes says that paying slightly more for tomatoes won’t affect the competitiveness of a supermarket for at least two reasons. First, the price of tomatoes is so elastic that if the supermarket decides to pass on the Fair Food Premium (a penny), nobody will notice. And even if they did, studies indicate that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for fairly produced food. Second, says Reyes, if all supermarkets join the Fair Food Program, then the workers and the industry as a whole benefit, and all the retailers would still be on a level playing field.
“We have demonstrated to the food industry that targeting its purchases toward good suppliers, and paying a small premium at the top of the food supply chain, can have a huge impact on wages and working conditions at the bottom of the chain. That is good for the overall industry, and any impact on the business of those companies that have joined the Fair Food Program has clearly been positive, not negative. This experience ought to inspire other retailers to take similar action,” says Reyes.
It is too early to tell how the Fair Food Program may impact other workers in other places and other industries, says Reyes. But right now, in Florida, it's a program that is extremely important to both retailers and consumers – and it’s making a big difference for farmworkers.
“This century's shoppers – the shoppers of the Information Age – are buying food plus the information behind the food: its nutritional value, its safety record, and, increasingly, the story of how the workers who produced the food are treated. More and more people are becoming aware of conditions that exist where our food comes from. The inevitable collision between the modern technology informing consumers' decisions and the antiquated labor conditions in this country's farm fields is already starting to produce energy for progressive change in the agricultural industry, and those retailers that understand this new reality and get ahead of it first will thrive,” adds Reyes.
This article is a preview of the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science publishing on June 25th, 2012. Click here for a free subscription.