Friday, March 30, 2012

Publix and the Immokalee Farm Workers

I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled across this webpage, but I am horrified.  In summary, the farm workers nearby are being treated criminally. 

Let me start by saying that I am not anti-capitalist.  I have owned my own business (with my husband), and know that business make decisions based on the bottom line.  That’s okay, but it shouldn’t ALWAYS be the deciding factor.  Also, let me add that for the most part, democracies don’t exist without capitalism.  (I know that not all democratic political systems are capitalistic now, but that is a rant for another day. Don’t even get me started about the ironies in Capitalism – again another day.)  The political economy of capitalism allows the most freedom for the highest percentage of population.  There is also evidence that no political system can escape rampant cronyism and other forms of graft and corruption.  Even with the problems inherent in its interpretation, America’s constitution has endured longer than any other in history.  Given what I have read about the problems we are currently facing, it may be time to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.  It is in need of manure.

My ex-husband is in love with Walmart. He thinks it is the glorious epitome of America. While I have eyed it suspiciously over the years, thinking that it is more the evil empire than Russia, I have also shopped there.  The prices are lower due to their ability to utilize the economies of scale.  What happens though when they are the only option for cheap crap in a community?? I doubt that crap will remain cheap when they are the ONLY business in town.  If I was Walmart, I would raise my prices where I could so that I can beat out other markets where margins are tighter.  Then, when I have destroyed the competition, I would establish larger profit margins.  Just saying… capitalism and all that.

This is similar to what is happening to the farm workers in Florida.  Big businesses are very much in control of what they can ask of farmers.  Farmers need big business to buy their product.  They are willing to cut corners and morality to do so.  These farmworkers are not asking much, a penny per pound for their labor.  That is something most of us won’t notice over the course of the year.  Here is some information presented on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) webpage. ( 

•Like textile workers at the turn of the last century, Florida tomato harvesters are still paid by the piece. The average piece rate today is 50 cents for every 32-lbs of tomatoes they pick, a rate that has remained virtually unchanged since 1980. As a result of that stagnation, a worker today must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday -- nearly twice the amount a worker had to pick to earn minimum wage thirty years ago, when the rate was 40 cents per bucket. Most farmworkers today earn less than $12,000 a year.

•In a January 2001 letter to members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Labor described farmworkers as "a labor force in significant economic distress," citing farmworkers' "low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, [and] significant periods of un- and underemployment" to support its conclusions.

•As a result of intentional exclusion from key New Deal labor reform measures, farmworkers do not have the right to overtime pay, nor the right to organize and collectively bargain with their employers.

•In the most extreme conditions, farmworkers are held against their will and forced to work for little or no pay, facing conditions that meet the stringent legal standards for prosecution under modern-day slavery statutes. Federal Civil Rights officials have successfully prosecuted seven slavery operations involving over 1,000 workers in Florida’s fields since 1997, prompting one federal prosecutor to call Florida "ground zero for modern-day slavery." In 2010, federal prosecutors indicted two more forced labor rings operating in Florida.

The Alliance for Fair Food (really, what a great name – who can be against fair food?) works toward increasing the pay of farmworkers, removing modern-day slavery conditions on farms, and creating a code of conduct of fair treatment for farm workers.  Sounds good to me, who wouldn’t want those rights?  Remember these guys working in the field not only have long hot days in the sun they also have to work with pesticides and dangerous farm equipment.  They don’t make minimum wage or overtime, and let’s not even go into benefits.  How is that fair? What really surprised me were the claims of slavery.  My first thought was that this was another over-blown liberal assault on business owners.  I was wrong.  Florida farmers have been prosecuted for slavery, as recently as 2010.  Like the company stores of long ago, these farmers hold the migrant workers in debt and  furthermore, some farmers have physically CHAINED workers inside box trucks.  How is this possible in America today?  The cost of our food just got a lot higher, and it had nothing to do with price. 

We have really cheap food in America.  Now, when I go to the supermarket, I am not grateful that it costs me $400 to fill the cart.  The costs have been increasing lately too.  As a nation, though, we spend less of our income on food than we have before.  The Economic Research Service for the United States Department of Agriculture published a report that states in 2010 Americans spend 9.4% of their disposable income on food.  In 1929, we spent 23.4% on food.  (  The more I read the more I am REALLY concerned about where my food comes from and how it’s handled.  

So, why pick on the grocery stores when they are not the ones hurting the farm workers?  Because they are in a position to do something about it.  I have worked in customer service in one way or another all my life (really aren’t more jobs involved in customer service at some point?  Even if the ‘customer’ is only your boss).  The gold rule of customer service is that the customer is always right.  The CIW has signed accords with McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo and Bon Appetit Management Company.  They are asking for the grocery stores to agree as well.  Publix and Walmart are giant buyers of tomatoes.  They can demand better treatment for the farm workers.  Since they are giant buyers, they will likely get what they ask for.  Publix touts that doing the right thing is a top priority for them.   In a profile of the CEO in Tampa Bay’s Business Journal, Ed Crenshaw said that controlling prices was also a top priority for them.  I do not believe that standing by and supporting a system of abuse like this is an effective means of controlling prices.  As for me, I will not buy produce from Publix until stands behind ‘doing the right thing’ and makes an effort to bring some fair treatment for workers instead of just saying the words.

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