August 30, 2011

That's not good enough, Trader Joe!

In the hope of diffusing a groundswell of public protest, Trader Joe's is claiming to be doing a number of things to address the sweatshop conditions which have long existed in its tomato supply chain. At protests during the Trader Joe's Northeast Truth Tour, many Trader Joe's store managers distributed fliers outlining these claims.

For those working in alliance with farmworkers for a just and sustainable food system, such claims will never satisfy us and indeed will only provoke us to amplify our call for justice. Following is an open rebuttal of Trader Joe's claims from Justice Harvest USA which will hopefully make clear to the grocer once and for all why its current course of action is not good enough.

Trader Joe's claims:

In general, we take the issues raised by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers seriously. Our not signing what we feel would be an overreaching and ambiguous agreement does not mean we are dismissive of the concerns presented.

That's not good enough, Joe!
The only credible way to help end the human rights crisis which has long plagued Florida farmworkers is by working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and signing a Fair Food agreement.  As a result of the CIW's Fair Food Program, conditions in the fields are for the first time changing, and wages which have been stagnant for decades are rising.  You can't simultaneously claim to take the issues seriously and try to weasel out of joining the only solution which has made a difference.  If you honestly took the issue seriously, you would jump at the opportunity to participate in the Fair Food Program as has your largest competitor Whole Foods.  

If you truly feel that the CIW's proposed agreement contains provisions that are "overreaching and ambiguous," you might try engaging in direct communication with the CIW to clarify and address those provisions.  That you haven't is evidence that your real concern is public relations damage control and not upholding the human rights of workers in your supply chain.

Trader Joe's claims:

We will only purchase Florida-grown tomatoes from growers signed on to and abiding by the CIW code of conduct.

That's not good enough, Joe!
Your claims are unsubstantiated and therefore self-serving - you need to make a binding commitment which can be independently verified!  Because you refuse to verify from whom you purchase tomatoes and in what quantities, there is no way of knowing if you are actually doing what you claim to be.  And lacking a binding agreement, there is nothing to prevent you from dropping the policy when that again becomes convenient, or purchasing from a grower which has fallen out of compliance with the Code of Conduct.  On a practical level, without participating in the Fair Food Program, there is not even a way for you to know if a grower is abiding by the Code of Conduct.  Your opposition to an agreement which would require that you prove you're living up to your claims and would bar you from purchasing from bad actors not only indicates that your policies are insincere.  It also undermines the progress that farmworkers have already achieved by signaling that the Fair Food principles are not required to maintain your business.

Trader Joe's claims:

Trader Joe's is working directly with wholesalers and growers to pay an extra penny per pound to those growers from whom we buy tomatoes grown in Florida. We have no problem paying an extra penny per pound as a "fair food" premium to certified growers.

That's not good enough, Joe!
As with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, there is no way to verify that you are actually paying the additional penny per pound to improve farmworkers' wages, or to guarantee that you will not cease the payments at your convenience.  And without independent auditing, there is no way to determine whether an unscrupulous grower is simply pocketing some or all of the "fair food" premium you think is going to the workers.  The CIW's Fair Food program has enforceable procedures to make certain that the payments are in fact going from the supermarkets and restaurant chains to the workers who picked their tomatoes.  Such supply chain transparency is vital to the integrity of any effort to protect the rights of farmworkers.  Without it your efforts are a façade.

Trader Joe's claims:

Again, we take this issue seriously and address such matters in our agreements with our suppliers. In fact, we require that our suppliers:

...represent and warrant that the goods sold to TJ's were produced, harvested, manufactured, processed, packaged, labeled, transported, delivered, and sold in compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations of the United States of America and all of its subdivisions and, if applicable, the laws of any other country, state, or international governing body...that the goods sold to TJ's were not produced, harvested, manufactured, processed, packaged, labeled, transported, or delivered using forced or prison labor or forced or illegal child labor.

If any of our suppliers are not in compliance with our agreement, we will terminate our relationship.

That's not good enough, Joe!
Where were you and all your agreements during all the slavery cases to come out of Florida agriculture over the past fifteen years? How many relationships with your suppliers did you terminate then? To truly change the abysmal situation faced by farmworkers, it is crucial that there be a robust program for continually monitoring conditions in the fields, investigating abuses, and enforcing compliance.  And the CIW's Fair Food Program is just such an approach, with farmworkers themselves playing an important role in the protection of their own rights.  No matter what you claim to "require" of your suppliers, it will amount to little more than words on paper as long as you have no reliable way to scrutinize what is occurring on the ground.  The requirements you placed on your suppliers did not prevent a well-documented litany of abuses - from sub-poverty wages to sexual harassment to slavery itself - from occurring and they certainly did not prevent you from continuing to buy tomatoes from farms where forced labor was being used.  Did you not know or did not care that this was the case?  Either way, your current assurances ring hollow.