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Why Won't Supposedly Progressive Trader Joe's Sign an Agreement Not to Sell Slave Labor Tomatoes? It Will Only Cost a Penny Per Pound

Trader Joe's pulls in some $8.5 billion per year, in part because of its progressive reputation. It's time for the company to sign a fair food agreement.

For an hour last Thursday, shoppers leaving Trader Joe’s in Center City Philadelphia were greeted by an unexpected sight: 35 students and activists holding signs and asking them to sign postcards to Trader Joe’s opposing slave labor. At 6pm, a delegation led by two tomato farmers from Florida attempted to go inside to deliver a letter to management. Before they could reach the door, the store manager headed them off with a demand they get off the property and threats of calling the police.

“This shows we’re getting to them,” said one of the farmworkers, Wilson Perez. “Everywhere else, they took the letter.”

Philadelphia was the third of 10 stops on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) East Coast Trader Joe’s tour, on which tomato growers and advocates are visiting stores from Maryland to Maine to inform consumers and confront management about the company’s refusal to sign on to a Fair Food agreement. In the decade since it launched a four-year boycott against Taco Bell, CIW has won such agreements with the four largest fast food chains and with growers who collectively provide over 90 percent of US tomatoes. But the majority of supermarkets have so far refused to follow suit – including Trader Joe’s, which trades on a reputation for both relentless efficiency and social consciousness. 

A Record of Success

Fair food agreements establish basic standards for wages and working conditions for farmworkers, and a complaint procedure to enforce their rights. Growers who sign on are obligated to treat their employees in accordance with these standards. Fast food and supermarket chains that sign on are obligated to do business only with growers that are complying with the standards, and to absorb increased costs: one penny per pound of tomatoes. Though the agreements haven’t stopped farmworkers’ jobs from being poverty jobs, both farmworkers on the East Coast tour say they have transformed their work conditions and reduced the intensity of their economic insecurity – especially since major growers Six L's and Pacific Tomato Growers signed on last fall.

“We’ve seen many changes already,” says Perez. “We can have shade now…we can have water now.” He recalls many times before last year’s agreements when his boss would flatly tell him the company hadn’t cut him a check for his work. Workers who tried to pursue their unpaid wages would eventually give up. Since the new agreements, “We have a voice in the camps. We can confront the manager, or we can make a complaint to the coalition” to force compliance. Oscar Otzoy, another Immokalee farmworker on the East Coast tour, says before the agreements managers were “treating you like a machine.” (Perez and Otzoy were both interviewed in Spanish.)

“Before I got involved in the coalition,” says Perez, “a boss would scold me when I was in the shade or drinking water,” even in 105 degree heat. “He would say, if you want a break, get on the bus and leave and don’t come back to work for me." Now workers are guaranteed breaks where they can sit in the shade and eat and drink water. “You don’t have to eat around pesticides anymore.” Whereas he and other workers regularly used to come into work sick in order to keep their jobs, now they can stay home when they’re too sick to work.

Before the agreement, says Otzoy, “When someone did complain they weren’t listened to, or sometimes they with fired. With the agreement we have the right to speak up without fear.” He says the agreements have ended an epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assault where he works. Before, managers would make clear that sex was the price for an assignment to a less strenuous job. “For a long time, there was no controlling it. It’s a forgotten industry.”

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