Oct 30th 2013

Justice from Tomatoes

by Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

NEW YORK – The last fast-food hamburger you ate may have cost you next to nothing. But what did the tomato slice on that burger cost the worker who got it there? Almost anywhere in the world – including in the United States – the cost can be shockingly high.

Appalling wages are just the start. In Florida, tomato pickers earn an average of just $0.50 for every 32-pound (14.5-kilogram) bucket. A worker who picks all day – backbreaking labor that starts before dawn – is lucky to earn $10,500 a year, placing him below the poverty line. 

Then there are the alarming human-rights violations. In Mexico, authorities recently freed almost 300 people, including 39 teenagers, who were being “held in slave-like conditions at a camp where tomatoes are sorted and packed for export.” US federal authorities have called Florida’s tomato fields “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” The abuses of farm workers by agribusiness interests there have been serious and systematic.

Enter the Campaign for Fair Food – a fight for better wages and conditions that Florida tomato pickers and their allies have fought and largely won. Their struggle not only underscores the obstacles confronting workers’ organizations in an era of outsourcing and global supply chains, but also might serve as a model for workers in other industries. 

For many years, the tomato industry in Florida depended on poor white and African American laborers. Today, it relies mainly on low-wage farmworkers from Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries – a change that owes much to two decades of trade liberalization. Policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement allowed multinational companies to sell cheap produce in Mexico and other countries, undercutting local farmers and driving millions of people off their land. In search of employment, many migrated to the US, where, as disempowered laborers, they went to work for the same (or similar) multinationals.

But globalization is now affecting the tactics that farmworkers have chosen. As Jake Ratner, a young activist who works for Just Harvest USA, points out, global corporations are often insulated from traditional tactics like boycotts. So farmworkers and their allies have chosen a novel “brand-busting” approach that targets companies’ public image – and that has gotten the attention of decision-makers at the top of the global food hierarchy. 

The Campaign for Fair Food’s agenda is to persuade every major tomato purchaser to sign on to the Fair Food Program, which, for a small premium – a penny per pound – changes the lives of workers and their families’ substantially. Under the FFP, workers who were paid $0.50 cents per 32-pound bucket (a rate that has not risen in more than 30 years) receive $0.82 – a 64% increase. A third-party organization, the Fair Food Standards Council, monitors the industry for compliance with wage and human-rights standards.

Before the FFP was launched in November 2010, Florida’s powerful tomato industry had long resisted increasing the per-bucket rate or signing on to codes of conduct to safeguard workers against abuses. That changed when activists began targeting the multinational corporations at the top of the pyramid, rather than the growers (who are now merely middlemen squeezed by global companies). As a result, eleven of the biggest global food corporations that buy their tomatoes from Florida growers – including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King, and supermarket chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s – have adopted the FFP.

The FFP has not only lifted workers’ wages. A confidential complaint hotline enables workers to report human-rights violations; more than 300 calls have been received since 2011 (all were investigated, and the vast majority were resolved). And corporations that sign on to the FFP also commit to a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor, which creates a market incentive for their growers to police their own operations actively; in the past, market forces created an incentive to look the other way. 

Likewise, before the FFP, Florida tomato workers had to wake up at three or four in the morning to get on buses and be in the fields the minute that orders came in. But they often were not allowed to start picking until 2-3 hours later, when the dew on the plants dried – time for which they were not paid. Now, with the introduction of FFP-mandated time clocks, workers can punch in and record their hours, ensuring that at least they will receive the state’s minimum wage. As a result, growers no longer want them starting so early, which gives them more time to sleep – and have breakfast with their families.

Without such programs, the multinational squeeze goes on. By leveraging their massive purchasing power, big multinational food corporations drive down prices, not only impoverishing farmworkers, but also eroding the profits of the growers who employ them. Meanwhile, the disaggregation and “disintermediation” of global corporations enables them to create formal barriers that prevent senior management from ever seeing, let alone being influenced by, their own workers (and growers). 

I experienced this firsthand when I joined a protest organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against a Wendy’s fast-food outlet in New York City’s Union Square. (Though four of the five largest US fast-food corporations have signed on to the FFP, Wendy’s is the holdout.) Citing company policy, Wendy’s managers refused even to accept a letter from the protesters about signing on to the FFP and gave them the telephone number of Wendy’s corporate spokesperson. Activists say that calling that number elicits a form-letter statement, and that no one ever speaks with them directly.

Nonetheless, the FFP campaigners may eventually get Wendy’s to sign on – making that tomato slice a little tastier for customers with a conscience. Perhaps more important, building a coalition of workers, consumers, and allied activists to apply pressure at the top could be a model for positive change for workers in globalized industries in India, Bangladesh, China, and elsewhere.

 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "