Breaking the chains that shackle agricultural workers

Taking on fast-food giants is the latest step towards fair working conditions for a movement of migrant fruit pickers in the US, reports Alana Mann from Washington DC.

Image by Alana Mann

For thousands of US fruit and vegetable pickers the age of slavery persists. Contracted labourers earn stagnant wages, share unaffordable and unsafe housing, are physically and sexually assaulted, and prohibited from organising to defend their interests.

In some communities, such as California’s San Joaquin Valley, families spend up to 10 per cent of their income on drinkable water – five times the affordable limit set by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Child labour is rife. More that nine percent of US farmworkers are estimated to be under the age of 18, and many are forced to work under the threat of violence.

Based on the huge volume of fresh produce fast-food outlets and major supermarkets purchase, their power to change these conditions is enormous. This is recognised by community-based organisers who are responding with savvy, consumer-focused campaigns to transform poor and powerless migrant workers into a political force that cannot be ignored.

Enter the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), based in Florida’s southern food basket. This movement of 5,000 Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrant fruit pickers is ending decades of poverty and abuse in the tomato industry through effective nationwide activism network targeting consumers who eat at fast-food restaurants.

Since its formation in 1993 the CIW has triggered nine federal prosecutions freeing over 1,200 forced labourers but its boldest turn came in 2001 with a nationwide farmworker boycott calling Taco Bell to account for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked. Four years of relentless campaigning cultivated enough community support to force the fast-food giant to agree to improve the wages and conditions of workers along the supply chain.

Capitalising on this landmark success, the movement consolidated the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF), creating and expanding the ‘Fair Food Principles’ set in the Taco Bell agreement with McDonald’s in 2007. Soon after, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods signed the AFF agreement. Food service providers including Sodexo and Bon Appètit soon followed.

In 2010, in what was described by the New York Times as “possibly the most successful labour action in the US in 20 years”, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange extended the AFF’s Fair Food Principles – codes of conduct, heath and safety initiatives, fair complaint resolution systems and education programs – to 90 per cent of the industry.

The current target of the Fair Food campaign is Wendy’s. The chain is holding out on paying ‘a penny a pound’ premium to support just wages for tomato pickers, and has failed to suspend dealings with suppliers violating the now industry-standard Fair Food Code of Conduct.

In 2013 the CIW took the campaign to New York City, where they received the Roosevelt Freedom from Want Medal in recognition of their contribution to human rights. Joined by a host of food justice allies, they picketed the Union Square Wendy’s – ironically in the same week that the chain celebrated late founder Dave Thomas’ purported values of ‘integrity, respect and responsibility’.

It is time the whole fast food industry recognised the dignity of migrant workers.

* Florida tomato pickers are paid by the piece – 50c per 14.5 kg, a rate commensurate with 1980. To earn minimum wage 2.5 tons of tomatoes must be picked in a 10 hour day – twice that required 30 years ago.

Alana Mann is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and is involved in SEI’s Food, People and the Planet node.She is the author of ‘Global Activism in Food Politics’.