Tomatoes rap Trader Joe’s for not signing agreement

[media-credit name=”Photo by Andalusia Knoll ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]
These funky fresh tomatoes have gone sour on Trader Joe’s.
BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK  |  About a dozen protesters dressed like giant tomatoes danced and rapped to the beat of Technotronic’s 1980s hit “Pump Up The Jam” in front of the E. 14th St. Trader Joe’s on Sat., Dec. 3. The costumed, vocal vegetables are part of an ongoing campaign against the supermarket chain’s refusal to collaborate with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and sign their Fair Food agreement — which includes paying tomato pickers one cent more per pound and protecting them against labor rights violations.
The protesters were members of the Community/Farmworker Alliance (NYC) — a local coalition of community members that organizes in solidarity with C.I.W. in their Campaign for Fair Food.

“I am involved with C.I.W. because as a consumer, a tomato lover and coming from a farmworker family background, it is my responsibility to work together with farmworkers,” said Lupe Rodriguez, one of the rapping red tomatoes. “I am deeply inspired by the C.I.W. because not only are agricultural workers leading a powerful change to improve their lives, but every day across the country, they are putting food on the table for thousands of families.”
The tuneful tomatoes distributed Christmas cards addressed to Trader Joe’s press-averse C.E.O. Dan Bane (the company’s corporate headquarters are in Monrovia, California) and encouraged entering and exiting shoppers to “Get your booty to sign the Fair Food agreement / Make my day.”

C.F.A. organizer Amanda Bell, a third-year law student at Columbia University (and former C.I.W. summer intern), said in a telephone interview that people were happy to sign the card.
Bell asserted that farmworkers on average make less than $12,000 a year and are not eligible for overtime pay despite working 14 hours a day under harsh conditions. They typically earn 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes — a rate virtually unchanged for three decades.

“It’s more than just the money involved,” Bell added. The pickers are also subject to labor rights violations, including modern-day slavery, she noted.
With the assistance of C.I.W., federal officials have successfully prosecuted seven farm slavery operations in Florida’s fields involving more than 1,000 workers since 1997 — in addition to two forced-labor rings in 2010 alone — prompting one federal prosecutor to call the Sunshine State “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” C.I.W. has also aided in many successful prosecutions of human traffickers by the U.S. Department of Justice.
C.I.W. is a farmer-led organization of mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants based in Immokalee, Collier County, in southwest Florida, since 1993. Immokalee, a vast agribusiness area, is a leading supplier of winter tomatoes sold to New York consumers by Trader Joe’s and other outlets.

In 2001, C.I.W. farmworkers launched their first-ever Campaign for Fair Food, targeting Taco Bell, since as a major corporate buyer of fruits and vegetables, the fast-food chain could leverage its buying power for the betterment of farmworker wages and working conditions. After four years, in March 2005, Taco Bell acceded to C.I.W.’s demands. Three other fast-food leaders, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, followed suit. Whole Foods signed on in September 2008 (the first in the supermarket industry) and in June 2009, the chain announced that it had secured the cooperation of two of Florida’s largest organic growers, Alderman Farms and Lady Moon Farms.

Food-service industry leaders Bon Appétit Management Company, Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo, as well as East Coast Growers, Florida’s third-largest tomato producer, have also become signatories.

The agreements are slated to go into effect across more than 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry during this winter’s growing season.
The agreement includes a one-penny-per-pound wage increase, a strict code of conduct (protections against sexual harassment for women and labor rights violations), a complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program and worker-to-worker education — and such elementary rights as having a break in the shade instead of sitting next to the tomato plants, not working during a lightning storm and access to a toilet with toilet paper and soap. In addition, workers no longer have to overfill the bucket, which was a source of friction and violence by crew leaders. (They will fill it only to the rim, which will give workers a little more earning power at the end of the day).

Trader Joe’s has been feeling the heat from the numerous protests and consumer inquiries and finally responded to customers on its Web site.
In an Oct. 23 post, “Update about Florida Tomatoes,” Trader Joe’s reiterated that it buys “only from growers signed on to and abiding by the C.I.W. Fair Food Code of Conduct…we have contracted directly with the two growers who employ the workers that harvest the tomatoes we sell [and they] have signed agreements.
However, the supermarket chain will not work directly with C.I.W.

“The C.I.W., an entity with which we have no business relationship, continues to demand that we sign an agreement with them that is unacceptable to us for reasons we presented in May,” the chain stated.

In response to an e-mail query, Alison Mochizuki, Trader Joe’s director of national public relations, responded, “At this time, we do not have any additional comments,” and included the Oct. 23 statement in the body of her e-mail.
Trader Joe’s is a privately held chain currently owned by Germany’s “ultra-private” Albrecht family — which is notorious in Germany for not talking to the press, according to an August 2010 report called “Inside the secret world of Trader Joe’s” on CNNMoney. “The company has never participated in a major story about its business operations… . In exchange, suppliers have to agree to operate under Trader Joe’s cloak of secrecy,” the article reported. A standard vendor agreement states that the vendor “shall not publicize its business relationship with TJ’s in any manner.”

Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe sold his company to the late Theo Albrecht in 1979 for an undisclosed amount. Sales in 2010 were roughly $8 billion, according to Fortune 500, which listed the company at number 314.

Gerardo Reyes, a tomato farmworker in Immokalee, had a lot of questions for Trader Joe’s.

“What are they going to do if there is a case of slavery?” he said. “Are they going to enforce the mechanism that they don’t even have in place? We are demanding transparency, using the tools that we have created according to the codes,” he said.
Tomatoes are one of Florida’s main crops and where most of the work is. (Oranges are becoming more and more mechanized.) For this reason, C.I.W. chose to focus on this industry. The agreement only covers tomatoes and only in Florida.

“We are forcing them to change without directly aiming at other crops,” Reyes said. “And if there are abuses in other places, whether they are covered or not, it is going to be a huge contradiction for them to explain. They can’t do business as usual.

“It is vital for the supermarket industry to sign to make sure the penny-per-pound and rights are established in the right way,” he added. “It’s ironic that a company that claims to be progressive threatens to undermine the agreement.”