Publix and the Business of Atrocities

 “Never let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing.” – George W. Jenkins, the founder of the Florida-based grocery chain Publix

This morning hundreds of men, women, and children came together to begin a two-week long, almost 200 mile, march from Immokalee to Lakeland. These marchers are led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). After the long, two-week trek marchers will find themselves at the headquarters for Publix-a $25-billion, Florida-based company with more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast. They will be calling on Publix to “honor the breakthrough social responsibility partnership for farm labor reform known as the Fair Food Program“.

The Fair Food movement began in February of 2000, when farm workers from Immokalee , accompanied by allies and a 12-ft tall replica of the Statue of Liberty (now displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC), made a two-week long trek from Ft. Myers to the offices of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Orlando.  In the 13 years since that first excursion there have been incredible successes in the effort to achieve “Dignity, Dialogue, and a Fair Wage”. In an effort to push Publix to take action, CIW is returning to its roots with this historic march.

The men, women and even children who pick our tomatoes (Florida is the largest supplier of tomatoes to the nation) make a rate of about 45 to 50 cents for picking 32 pounds of tomatoes — a rate that hasn’t increased substantially since 1978. If they hope to go home at the end of the day with a mere $50 in their pockets they will need to pick approximately two tons of tomatoes. This of course applies to those who actually do get paid.

CIW started in 1993 as a small group in southwest Florida comprised of Haitian, Mayan and Latino agricultural workers. Their passion and resilience is reminiscent of César Chávez. It’s been over half a century since Chávez began his work with the National Farm Workers Association and became a symbol of hope for the Latino community. Yet 50+ years later, CIW is facing similar challenges and thankfully similar successes.

Under the Fair Food Program, participating growers have agreed to the above standards

Under the Fair Food Program, participating growers have agreed to the above standards

CIW has signed Fair Food Program Agreements with 11 major corporations. These corporations include Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and BAMCO. The Fair Food Program agreements include a penny-per-pound premium sent down the supply chain to workers, stipulations on working conditions, and the establishment of a third-party monitoring system to ensure these changes last. The pay increase translates to a mere jump of approximately $15 per family in groceries yet ensures that farm workers can rise out of poverty. This program has resulted in crucial changes. Workers now receive a “Fair Food Premium” in their pay. Sexual harassment is no longer tolerated, and growers provide bathrooms, water and shade structures in rest areas. Tomato pickers are educated on-site about their new rights under the program, and there is a hotline that workers can call to report violations.

With so many big name corporations joining the program, it is confounding to see Publix repeatedly refuse to even sit down for talks with CIW. It has been years of disrespect, rejection, and callousness from the grocery giant who still insists on purchasing their tomatoes from Florida growers who deny access to FFP standards (among other offenses).

“After decades of what Edward R. Murrow called the ‘Harvest of Shame,’ the Fair Food Program is something the Florida tomato industry, something all of us can all be proud of — labor rights advances that are setting the bar for social responsibility in the US produce industry today,” said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW. “But while the changes we are seeing in farmworkers’ lives today are indeed unprecedented, there is still much to be done. With each new corporation that joins, the wage increases and labor reforms grow and deepen, which is why Publix’s decision to turn its back on the FFP is so unconscionable. Its support, which would cost Publix little or nothing, could significantly change the lives of some of the state’s hardest workers, yet the $28 billion company won’t even show farmworkers the respect of granting us a meeting to discuss the Fair Food Program face-to-face.”

Publix’s “Put It In the Price” response to CIW is simply a more eloquent, thought out version of their condescending and flippant comments put forth by Publix PR reps.

We don’t believe “just paying the penny” is the right thing to do —for Publix or our
suppliers. Simply stated, Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound —
or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be —in order to provide product to our
customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their
labor. That is the responsibility of their employer, and we believe all parties would be
better served if appropriate wages were paid by growers to their workers, and we were
charged accordingly. – PIITP Response

Sounds solid on the surface but actively choosing to work solely with farms that abuse/underpay their workers rather than pressure said farms to step up their game or choosing to switch to another provider (much like the 11 corporations named above) is inexcusable. Particularly when you champion yourself as a company that has “earned the respect of our peers and have been consistently recognized because of our values, mission and contributions. Publix also is widely recognized for creating a unique workplace culture based on respecting the dignity, value and employment security of our associates.”  …and if the companies we partner with refuse to do the same we simply look the other way. Problem solved.

Also, to be frank, the argument put forth by Publix is deceptive. The penny will be in the price if Publix joins the program. This is simply a request that Publix not stubbornly choose to engage with partners who exploit their workers and that the corporation live up to its claims of respecting dignity and value.

Sadly, I will not be able to join the CIW for the entire march but on March 17th I will participate in the final 6 miles and will join hundreds of men, women and children at a 4 pm rally at the Publix corporate headquarters in Lakeland.

Will you  join us?

Joining the march is not the only way to support CIW and the farmworkers. Visit here to learn how you can take part in the “March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food”.



Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude… Except As A Punishment For Crime

Female chain gang marching to a bus that will transport them to a work site outside Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Some are attempting to add a new name to the list of trafficked persons that make up the modern slave trade: the incarcerated American.  In the past, media outlets and activists have denounced prison labor practices in areas in such as China but the light is now being shone on  the U.S. prison system.

Currently, Federal and State laws do not acknowledge inmates (in labor programs) as trafficked persons. Human trafficking  is the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. In the case of adults, Federal and state laws require that there be evidence of force, fraud, or coercion.

Section 1.of the 13th amendment states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In other words…

“The state has the authority to enslave you simply by convicting you of a crime and sending you to prison or requiring community service through state approved agencies.”

What rights do incarcerated persons have? Should there be reform of the American prison system, federal and state laws, and the U.S. Constitution to address potential acts of slavery?

Though it is not the focus here, it should be acknowledged that there are government-run companies that use this prison labor to turn huge profits by underbidding everyone. UNICOR is a government run company inside the federal prison system that makes everything from drywall to office chairs in factories on prison property.

 The specific issue being addressed here is what happens once private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and G4S are in control of these prisons and they sell inmate labor, at sub-minimum wages, to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, AT&T, IBM and Martori Farms. Would you be shocked to learn that Martori Farms is a leading suppliers of agricultural produce to that paragon of corporate virtue, Walmart?

The first concern is “who should be served by the practice of prison labor?”. Would it be best for these projects to be government-headed projects that serve the needs of the country, rather than giving massive (sometimes corrupt) corporations cheap/free labor and taking jobs away from the unemployed?

Do we want prison labor to continue to be a private industry, mostly benefiting the rich, or is it better for prison profits to help pay for all costs associated with maintaining inmates, compensating victims, increasing public revenue, financing needed programs etc…?

Imprisonment costs taxpayers billions of dollars. If we are limited to private corporation labor programs, wouldn’t the government and the people be best served by having companies pay minimum wage (or perhaps a slight reduction for contributing to this program) and then pay a portion to the inmates, using the remainder to pay for the inmates incarceration costs.

Once we’ve answered the aforementioned question we must consider the issue of punishment versus rehabilitation. If all of these private corporations start using prison populations as their work force and making huge profits, where is the incentive to rehabilitate the prisoners? America already incarcerates more people than any other country on earth. If the company starts depending on prison labor then they will find ways to keep the prisons full. This is a slippery slope. Forcing companies to pay something comparable to minimum wage could assist in eliminating the desire to keep prisons heavily populated.

Ninety-seven percent of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes. It is believed that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of. Of these, the majority are awaiting trial. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses. Sixteen percent of the country’s 2 million prisoners suffer from mental illness. Who is benefiting to keep these people imprisoned? They are after all, a captive (pun intended) audience for the greediest of our government and our corporations.

Is there and should there be any return for the inmate when it comes to prison labor? Perhaps prison labor could amount to sentence reduction. Then the door would be open to rehabilitation and recuperation, with incentives going towards work that has to do with bettering society. Education could be included in order to qualify inmates. And if you obtain degrees from those studies it could be commensurable with time taken off your sentence.

In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (known as PIE; pdf) to provide employment opportunities. Theoretically, this program addressed all the concerns found here. It provided prisoners a chance to contribute to their own upkeep, gave them a chance to gain necessary job skills, and allowed them to engage in productive activities while incarcerated. Theoretically…