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How FreshDirect Delivers Misery Along With Your Groceries--And How Workers and the Community are Fighting Back

The upscale grocery delivery service pays less than $9 an hour, has faced discrimination complaints, and is a union-buster--so why is New York giving it a handout?

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It's hard to prove for sure what triggers an investigation, he noted, because they tend to target low-wage workplaces, which tend to have a concentration of undocumented workers, and also tend to be a focus for labor unions attempting to organize workers. The raids, while on the surface not clearly connected to a union drive, don't actually make conditions better for the workers who do remain. “It's not like employers start treating their employees any better once they verify they're all documented," Jimenez pointed out. “In fact the raids probably have the opposite effect; the people who remain might start to associate the firings with their efforts to make improvements at work. And undocumented workers at other facilities might fear that if they try to form a union, the same thing will happen to them."

That's certainly been the case for FreshDirect. After the raid, Pope noted, the workers have been less likely to speak out. “They just felt like anything could happen,” she said.

Greenwashing and High-Tech Cred

FreshDirect was ranked as one of New York City's “ top startups” in 2010, valued then at $300 million, but despite its high-tech gloss relies, as we've seen, on a decidedly low-tech business model—low-paid warehouse workers loading lots of trucks that are driven by low-paid workers to the doorsteps of, for the most part, harried middle-class Manhattan and Brooklyn residents. The sleek 21st-century image of a green web-based company delivering local food (at premium prices), fresh produce, supporting local farmers, using recycled boxes, relies on a fleet of trucks that still run on diesel (despite years-old promises to replace them with biodiesel and electric vehicles).

The (non-binding) promise FreshDirect made to the Bronx is that it will convert, within five years, to a completely green fleet of trucks, but Bronx residents don't believe it. A website set up to oppose the company's move and attendant subsidies argues, “ FreshDirect would exacerbate asthma rates among a community already facing asthma hospitalizations at five times the national average. FreshDirect would add upwards of 2,000 diesel truck trips per day through a residential neighborhood. The same public land set to house FreshDirect already holds a FedEx hub making over 1,400 daily truck trips through the neighborhood, the New York Post printing and distribution center, and a 5,000-ton-per-day waste transfer station, one of four waste transfer stations within a 1/8 mile radius of the proposed site.”

Pope said that larger trucks delivering groceries to local stores around the city have to observe stricter rules after a Department of Transportation study on how to reduce pollution, but by subsidizing FreshDirect, the city is now encouraging the propagation of little trucks all over the city. In 2009, then-attorney general (now pro-FreshDirect governor) Andrew Cuomo came to a settlement with FreshDirect that included $50,000 in fines for violating anti-idling laws after city residents complained about the trucks idling and releasing pollutants in their neighborhoods. And  as far back as 2007, the company promised to switch to biodiesel and plug-in electric vehicles—promises that have so far not come to pass.

“We're giving them $10 million to buy trucks from Smith Electric, they're saying within five years that they're going to convert their entire fleet,” Johnson commented. “If they didn't do it in 2007, why would they now? It's just telling us fairy tales.”

Johnson also pointed out that the Harlem River Yards land where the FreshDirect facility will go was supposed to be used to reduce traffic by developing a rail line. The land is owned by the New York State Department of Transportation, and has been leased for 99 years to Harlem River Yard Ventures, which is owned in turn by real estate developer  Galesi Group. Yet there has been no development on the land since it's held the lease—the only thing that's happened, Johnson said, is that the Bronx residents can't access their waterfront.