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Ending Slave Labor: Will Trader Joe's Agree to Fair Food?

Trader Joe's, as well as other grocery chains, have yet to sign on to the Fair Food Campaign to protect farm workers and provide more livable wages.

Originally published at Ecocentric.

Two weeks ago, my coworker Karen and I left the office a little early and walked across Manhattan to the Trader Joe's store in Chelsea, where a small group had gathered making signs and chatting. Among them were members of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots group working to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers. Over the course of about 45 minutes, dozens more people filled the sidewalk in front of the store, including labor activists from the Jewish Labor Committee, Just Harvest USA and the Farmworker Solidarity Alliance, as well as local youths and a handful of musicians from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.

Trader Joe's, along with Publix, Kroger, and Dutch-held Ahold grocery chains (which include Giant, Stop & Shop, Martin's and Peapod), are the most recent targets of CIW's Fair Food Campaign. Over the last nine years the Coalition, together with partner organizations like the Student/Farmworker Alliance, has managed, through well-organized consumer campaigns and sometimes boycotts, to convince some of the food industry's largest corporations (including Taco Bell/Yum Brands, McDonald's, Subway, Whole Foods and Compass) to agree to the tenets of Fair Food: an extra penny a pound for tomatoes (nearly doubling the wages for pickers, who've not seen a raise since the mid-1970s), a labor Code of Conduct, greater transparency in the supply chain and incentives for growers that respect human rights.

The major fast food wins the Coalition has enjoyed have not come without a fight - in 2007, Burger King hired private investigators to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance and vice president Stephen Grover was caught using his daughter's online alias to smear the group virtually. Chipotle, a chain built on promises of "food with integrity," is the highest-profile holdout, and has spent the last few years dodging the Coalition. But they've made much greater strides with restaurants than with the grocery chains - only Whole Foods, which like Chipotle built its reputation on ethically-sound food, has managed to sidestep the bad publicity that heel-dragging retailers have experienced.

Like Whole Foods and Chipotle, Trader Joe's attracts a decidedly progressive league of shoppers, but has managed, at least until recently, to avoid much scrutiny, in part perhaps through what CNN Money recently dubbed its "obsessively secretive" behavior. The chain has not escaped controversy entirely - two years ago, when 17-year-old Maria Vasquez suffered fatal heat stroke in a California vineyard that grew grapes for Charles Shaw wine, also known as Two Buck Chuck, which is sold by the chain, labor activists were quick to pressure Trader Joe's to push its suppliers for stricter adherence to labor regulations. But if Joe is feeling the heat, he's not showing it. My email to the company was left unanswered, and Chelsea Now reporters Bonnie Rosenstock and Scott Stiffler received an evasive response from TJ's publicist, Alison Mochizuki:

At Trader Joe's, we work with reputable suppliers that have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting if not exceeding government standards throughout all aspects of their businesses.

A few weeks before the Trader Joe's rally, Karen and I met before work (to shoot the video below) at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, where the CIW's mobile Modern-Day Slavery Museum had set up shop for the day to educate passers-by about six of the seven cases of slavery prosecuted on behalf of farmworkers in recent years. The museum, housed in a cargo truck similar to the one that held enslaved workers in one of the cases, puts these modern abuses into historical perspective, documenting Florida's checkered past from the days of Spanish chattel slavery, through its use as a hub for importing African slaves and the creation of systems of state-sanctioned slavery, like the convict-lease program of the late 1800's, through which the state would actually rent out African-American men, often convicted on questionable charges, to farm owners. It points out the fact that farm laborers were specifically left out of Roosevelt's New Deal in 1935, and have still never been awarded rights that were extended to other kinds of workers 75 years ago, including the right to bargain collectively. Since then, the most common form of labor abuses entail "debt peonage," often using a "company store" set up, sometimes withholding wages so that workers lack cash to buy food and other goods anywhere but from the employer, who sells them to employees at radically inflated prices.

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