Above: Benito Garcia (front) and 60 other farmworkers fast outside Publix’s corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Fla. (Photo by Diana Moreno)

Despite recent protests, Publix refuses to address human rights violations within its supply chain

On March 10, hundreds of protesters from the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice and the Student/Farmworker Alliance marched 3 miles from a Publix grocery store to the company’s headquarters in Lakeland, Fla. There, they joined 61 farmworkers and seven allies who were on their sixth day of fasting with the hope of getting Publix Supermarkets to address the possibility of human rights violations within its supply chain.

For nearly three years, Publix, a $1.5 billion company, has refused to negotiate with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots organization that advocates fair wages and humane working conditions throughout Florida’s fields. The CIW’s “Fast for Fair Food” from March 5 to March 10 was one of many recent demonstrations in which farmworkers have tried, without success, to gain the attention of Publix’s upper management.

“We don’t have any plans to sit down with the CIW,” Publix Media and Community Relations Manager Dwaine Stevens told the Baldwin County News in 2010. “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business. Maybe the government should get involved.” To date, Publix has not changed its position.

The “atrocities” he mentioned include the widespread exploitation of farmworkers throughout Florida’s recent history—specifically, subminimum wages, questionable working conditions and at least nine cases of outright slavery since 1996—which the CIW has been struggling to eradicate. Publix, which allegedly provides a market for abusive growers, is one of the CIW’s last remaining targets.

The Fields of Immokalee

Florida provides 45 percent of all tomatoes purchased in the United States, and from October to June, the rate skyrockets to over 90 percent. The fields surrounding Immokalee make up the epicenter of Florida’s tomato industry, and every growing season, Immokalee’s population temporarily doubles, flooded with migrant workers who rely on income from picking tomatoes.

In Immokalee, the lack of institutional protection leaves thousands of workers vulnerable to slavery, physical assault, child labor and sexual harassment. The CIW, which began as a handful of defiant farmworkers, now represents the collective voice of about 4,500 migrant workers of mostly Hispanic, Haitian and Mayan descent. On a grassroots level, the CIW holds meetings and hands out materials informing workers of their rights and outlining ways to legally report abuse.

Through its Fair Food Program, the CIW has struck deals with ten major food corporations— including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Aramark, Sodexo, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—and over 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers.

The program requires growers to follow a Code of Conduct designed to protect their workers from human rights violations, and it requires retailers to cut their purchases from growers who fail to enforce it. The Code of Conduct includes worker-to-worker education sessions on farms and on company time, a worker-triggered complaint resolution system, a network of health and safety volunteers on every farm and provisions concerning environmental factors like shade in the fields.

Participating retailers have also agreed to pay one extra penny for each pound of tomatoes they purchase, which would trickle down to the workers who pick them. To a struggling farmworker, the extra penny could mark the difference between abject poverty and livable wages.

The Last Piece of the Puzzle

About two years ago, the CIW shifted its focus to supermarkets, which could be considered the “last piece of the puzzle,” according to Joe Parker, co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Any major supermarket that isn’t part of the Fair Food Program may provide an outlet for abusive growers. But Publix refuses to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program, claiming that any sort of abuse within its supply chain is a labor dispute between workers, growers and, if necessary, the government.

As spokesperson Shannon Patten said in an interview with Creative Loafing last March, “Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be in order to provide the goods to our customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer. We suggest that whatever the impact of their negotiations, they put the cost of the tomatoes in the price they charge the industry for the goods.”

In response to Publix’s arguments, the CIW contends that its Fair Food Program would not require Publix to pay farm workers “directly for their labor.” Instead, the produce repackers would charge the extra penny, considered a Fair Food premium, embedding the penny raise into the market price. Those funds are then passed on to the growers and then to the workers as a bonus in their paychecks.

As the CIW explains on its website, “The high degree of consolidation in the food industry today means that multi-billion dollar brands on the retail end of the industry [like Publix] are able to leverage their volume and purchasing power to demand ever-lower prices, which has resulted in downward pressure on farmworker wages. The Fair Food Program reverses that process…”

The CIW and its allies have pointed out that other supermarkets—like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—have already joined its program, which would benefit workers in Florida through the same process that Publix’s Fair Trade coffee benefits workers in Latin America: “Fair trade prices help farmers provide employees with livable wages and work conditions. Which fosters the same values we do: community, wellbeing, and a nicer world,” Publix says on its Fair Trade coffee label.

In an online press release, Publix advises farmworkers to take their concerns directly to their employers, but also acknowledges that farmworkers are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which would have protected their right to organize and actually do so in the first place. Publix also dismissed the CIW’s assertion of wage stagnation over the last 30 years and pointed to a U.S. Secretary of Labor report, which claims farmworkers in Florida are paid $9.50 an hour.

In a detailed refutation, the CIW points out that the Secretary of Labor’s $9.50 figure refers to the 2011 Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), which is not specific to tomato harvesters, and that 95 percent of Florida’s tomato pickers are not even legally eligible to earn the AEWR.

“Like textile workers at the turn of the last century, Florida tomato harvesters are still paid by the piece,” the CIW says. On average, workers earn 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. To make the equivalent of minimum wage, farmworkers would have to pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes in a typical 10-hour workday, which is more than twice the amount they would have had to pick 30 years ago. According to estimates from 2005, farmworkers earn about $10,000 each year with no overtime, no health insurance, no sick leave and no paid vacation, and the penny-per-pound increase would nearly double their wages.

The late George Jenkins, Publix’s founder, received widespread admiration for granting his employees stock in the company: “Never let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing,” he famously said. His words would later be used as a rallying cry for the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food.

“Over the years, we have seen real changes in the camps regarding workers’ rights and their ability to organize without fear and to work without discrimination or sexual harassment,” said Oscar Otzoy, a CIW member and Fast for Fair Food participant. Thanks to the CIW’s progress, entire families are better off now, rather than just workers in the field, he added. After the march, music, speakers, prayers and ceremonial breaking of the bread, which ended the fasting, the workers and allies turned to Publix’s headquarters and chanted in unison: “We’ll be back! We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”

To learn more about the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, check out:
CIW: La Lucha Sigue (The Fight Continues)
CIW: El Pueblo Unido (The People United)
CIW: Pilgrimage to Publix
CIW: Fast for Fair Food