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

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.”

Otzoy says in the past the company bus would drop off workers three hours before their shift started, leaving them to sit and wait without pay until they could start working. Now workers have the right to punch in and begin getting paid an hourly wage as soon as they’re dropped off at the plant – and so the company is picking them up hours later to avoid having to pay them extra. That means workers are able to see their kids in the morning, or walk them to school.

The Struggle for Supermarkets

CIW has been effective by exerting pressure throughout the supply chain. Activists targeted Taco Bell early on because of its vulnerability to public pressure. Having won a commitment from Taco Bell to pay the additional penny per pound necessary for reforms, activists demanded and won agreements from growers to implement them. 

But now workers and advocates say the framework is being undermined by the refusal of supermarkets to sign on. Among those grocery chains is Trader Joe’s, which has over 360 stores across the country and an estimated $8.5 billion in annual revenue. Big retail chains are more susceptible to direct public pressure than are the growers themselves. So farm workers say it’s crucial for the growers to know that these chains are obligated to cut off their business if independent auditors find that the growers aren’t adhering to the agreement. By not signing an agreement, Trader Joe’s is sending a signal that even the modest reforms in the fair food agreements are not required to maintain its business. CIW charges that this refusal creates the risk of slave labor tomatoes ending up at your local Trader Joe’s.

Slavery in the Florida farming industry in not just hypothetical. Florida’s fields have been the sites of nine federally prosecuted slavery cases involving a dozen employers and over a thousand workers. Employers have been indicted for beating workers, turning guns on them, and locking them inside trucks. CIW cites a federal prosecutor who has named Florida “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in the United States.

Trader Joe’s has a “tremendous role” to play, says the Student Farmworker Alliance’s Claudia Saenz. She adds that having majorities of growers and fast food chains signed on is “not enough to change the industry 100 percent. We need Trader Joe’s to be part of a solution that would transform the industry.”

“Bringing in the supermarkets,” says Otzoy, “will give more strength for this agreement to be implemented further in the fields.”

Trader Joe’s Resists

Trader Joe’s has publicly responded to the campaign with a “Note to Our Customers” that calls the CIW’s Fair Food agreements “overreaching, ambiguous, and improper,” without noting that such agreements have already been signed by competitor Whole Foods, major fast food chains, and the growers that provide most of the country’s tomatoes. The company’s letter passes responsibility onto its wholesalers, who buy tomatoes from growers and sell them to Trader Joe’s (and have less to fear from public embarrassment). In a point-by-point rebuttal to the letter, CIW retorts that “Apparently, Trader Joe’s is better at innuendo than math.” CIW notes that when it began discussions with the wholesalers -- several separate competing companies -- the wholesalers said they needed to talk to Trader Joe’s before moving forward, but then stopped returning CIW’s calls.

In an email, a Trader Joe's spokesperson provided a link to the company's public response and added that the company requires its suppliers to follow the law and refrain from using forced labor, that it has "no problem paying an extra penny per pound," and that "We will only purchase Florida-grown tomatoes from growers signed on to and abiding by the CIW code of conduct." Told about this statement, SFA's Meghan Cohorst responds that Trader Joe's assertions are not enough to ensure compliance. "What makes this different from 2007 when there was a case of slavery uncovered in that supply chain?" she asks. "Until they sign onto a binding legal agreement, there’s no enforcement there, there’s no monitoring, there’s no way of knowing that they’re doing what they’re saying."

The CIW’s message has understandably focused on the low, penny-per-pound cost of its reforms. But given that the vast majority of tomato growers Trader Joe’s could buy from are currently signed onto Fair Food agreements, the company’s resistance may be less about costs than about power. Even if producers are currently passing an extra penny-per-pound cost onto Trader Joe’s (there’s no way to know because the company isn’t sharing records with the CIW), Trader Joe’s may be loathe to enter an agreement that forces it to sit across the table from farmworkers, allows independent auditors to assess whether it lives up to its promises, and bars it from doing business with bad actors in the future.

Activists and workers say they have not yet discussed escalating to a boycott. “In the future if they don’t listen, we’ll have to look it over,” says Otzoy.

For now, they’re asking consumers to speak out and push Trader Joe’s to do the right thing. The East Coast tour follows a California tour last month. After Philadelphia, the East Coast tour headed to New York City last Friday, where activists ran 1.6 miles between two Trader Joe’s sites to dramatize their struggle. The CIW and allies are planning a day of action at Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters and around the country next month. But the company’s response so far should give pause to any customers convinced that the company values progressivism as much as it values efficiency -- or its own discretion.

“Every company has been stubborn about accepting our conditions and believing how we live,” says Otzoy. “We see this supermarket has been inventing things, they’ve been resisting us, but we have faith and hope that one day they will come to the table. We hope it will be soon.”


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.