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Labor Takes Historic Stride Forward as Walmart Joins Fair Food Program

The struggle for labor justice in the fields of the United States—and perhaps far beyond—took an historic stride forward yesterday. At a folding table in a metal-clad produce packing shed beside a tomato field in southwestern Florida, two high-ranking executives from the giant retailer Walmart, which sells more groceries than any other company in the world, sat down beside two Mexican farmworkers and signed an agreement to join the Fair Food Program.

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Originating as a solution to the atrocious working conditions in Florida’s $650 million tomato industry, which included several cases of abject slavery, the Fair Food Program was created by the Coalition of Immolakee Workers (CIW), a human rights group based in Immokalee, Florida, the state’s largest migrant workers’ community.

The program is unique in that it creates a legal framework linking laborers, tomato farm owners, and final purchasers of tomatoes. The purchasers, which include such giants as McDonalds, Whole Foods Market, and Sodexo, have agreed to pay an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they buy. In turn, the producers pass that penny directly along to the workers. A penny-a-pound might sound like a pittance, but it represents a 50 percent raise, the difference between making $50 and $80 a day.

But the agreement goes far beyond providing a livable—albeit modest–income. Signatories abide to a Code of Conduct that enforces zero-tolerance for slavery or sexual assault. Workers attend education sessions to learn their rights and responsibilities under the Program. They are also informed about health and safety issues.

A grievance system ensures that worker complaints reach the proper authorities. And critically, an independent third party, the Fair Foods Standards Council, oversees implementation of the program and audits the extra penny-a-pound payments to make sure they are reaching the workers. In the three years since first being introduced, the program has funneled more than $11 million of extra income to the workers, dealt with nearly 400 complaints, and interviewed more than 4,000 workers for on-farm audits. (Click here for a full copy of their annual report.)

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Notably, there has not been a single reported case of slavery in Florida, an area once called “ground-zero for modern-day slavery” by a federal prosecutor. It’s a huge accomplishment for an organization that began 20 years ago as a loose gathering of a couple of dozen tomato pickers in a church meeting room in a shabby Florida town.

Before this week, nearly all of the fast food chains had agreed to participate (Wendy’s refuses to take part). So had all the major food service companies that supply colleges, museums, and businesses. For all the CIW’s accomplishments, there remained a giant hole in the Fair Food Program’s social safety net. With the exception of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, not a single supermarket company had signed on to the program. With the stroke of a pen, that all changed this week when Walmart joined.

The implications of the Walmart decision cannot be understated. Enormous pressure will be placed on competing grocery giants to follow Walmart’s lead. The CIW’s successes in bringing aboard competitors within food industry groups has always benefitted from a domino effect. It took four years of petitions, demonstrations, and hunger strikes for the group to convince Taco Bell to finally sign in 2005, and another two years to get McDonald’s to agree. Then the other fast food chains all but fell over themselves in a rush to the table.

The food service industry went through a similar cascade after Bon Appétit Management voluntarily joined in 2009. Importantly, Walmart signed on its own volition, without any pressure from CIW actions. History makes it hard to see how companies such as Publix, a big southeastern grocery chain based in Florida, can continue to snub the CIW and its supporters.

Wisely, the CIW has concentrated on going slowly, making sure that the program was rolled out carefully in one small sector of the agriculture industry, a sector that has provided fertile ground for some of the most egregious human rights violations suffered by American workers. But the program provides a template that can be used across food production, which has been notoriously difficult to organize through unionization and other traditional activities. A worker doesn’t have to “join” anything to benefit from the Fair Food Program. The instant a person steps into a tomato field, he or she is linked into a legally binding system that leads directly to the executive suites of the largest food companies in the world.

The notion that the Fair Food Program has the potential to be a moveable template for labor justice was not lost on Alexandra Guáqueta, chair of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, who attended the Walmart signing ceremony. Praising the Fair Food Program’s “smart mix” of tools, she said, “We are eager to see whether the Fair Food Program is able to leverage further change within participation businesses and serve as a model elsewhere in the world.”

Photo credit: CIW.

9 thoughts on “Labor Takes Historic Stride Forward as Walmart Joins Fair Food Program

  1. While I applaud Wal-Mart’s decision to join the Fair Food Program, I also want to highlight that Wal-Mart and other supermarket companies have resisted efforts to attain living wages for other workers in the supply chain, not least of which are in their own stores. This may be is a giant leap forward for tomato workers and agricultural labor advocates, but agreeing to pay tomato suppliers more for labor is but one small step for Wal-Mart and multinational corporations toward labor justice.

    On that note, it remains to be seen what impact participation in the Fair Food Program will have on corporate sourcing practices. That is, will the added cost that signatories agree to pay simply incentivize them to source their products (i.e. tomatoes) from places in the world with lower prices? Whether or not this will be the case with tomatoes, it could theoretically happen with other agricultural products that this Fair Food “template” is applied to. Wal-Mart’s sourcing and labor practices already let it set grocery prices about 15 % below competitors’, according to Supermarket News (NY Times). I worry that companies may only deem it cost-competitive to sign these agreements if they cut costs elsewhere.

    Yet, for better or worse, I tend to think that Wal-Mart may actually be in a particularly strong position to avoid this continued race-to-the-bottom even as labor justice agreements are signed. Wal-Mart comprises about 12% of total U.S. retail sales, and between 15 and 20% of the oligopolistic grocery market’s sales. This gives them the power to greatly influence prices (Volpe and Lavoi, 2008) . So if Wal-Mart signs onto more fair food agreements, its competitors may feel less pressure to reduce their prices to match Wal-Mart’s, and more to match the positive publicity generated by signing on.

  2. I read Barry’s book a few years ago and have been trying to convince my circle of friends to demand fair trade in the stores where each shops (and carry those purchases in a cloth or canvas bag). Please, everyone, contact the store where you shop. Urge that all produce be fairly traded.

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  6. Back awhile ago I got a letter saying Wendy’s was not signing on to the penny for the workers I stopped using them. I must say it is mighty low down rotten to the pits of hell when a co. the size of wendy’s who want give 1 penny to the plight of some poor workers.After all any one who has eat at wendy’s knows its like asking forgold dust in your food to get wendy’s to put a slice of tomato in your burger. So for christ sake how much or we talking in real money they would be out in a year with 1 penny more for the tomato workers,say ten bucks would be to much.
    To be honest I don’t think this has as much to do with the amount of money that they would spend its the way most big co’s look at labor in this world. It is seen as an evil that they would love to have all workers turned into slaves for there use with out them having to give any return to them for there efforts on there behalf. So many co’s don’t see the efforts of there workers as a value to the co. They seem to think if its below the head office they don’t really get any thing of value done. The fact that some poor worker stands all week on a line deep in the interworkings of a co. putting the same part on the same thing is not of any worth to the co. so why care if that person makes a living. Yet the ceo of the same co. fire’s 20% of the work force he gets a bonus of 25 million for cost cutting.Now you have one person on that line doing two people’s job and god forbid that person ask for a raise or ask the co. to share in the big hike in health insurance.This is just part of the reason this country is in a long term down turn, and the rich get richer will the middle class goes away while the poor get lower down the pole and have no where to turn but to wellfare.

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  8. Possibly a good start, or at least a good intention toward justice, raising our society’s dignity by raising our awareness at all the facets that form our societal ecosystem. Another important step that we need to decide to make is to move toward more sustainable growing practices. Constantly sourcing from far away farms which use unsustainable growing practices will not be helping us recover our planet’s state of well-being. All of these companies and individuals need to start valuing the work of soil scientists and discussing these needs together. They may just find that production would still be very high, and not at the exploitation of land or people.

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