THE BLOG

I Say Tomahto, You Say Exploitation

03/20/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013

What's the quickest way to get thrown out of a Publix supermarket? Is
it a) to run naked through the aisles, b) to point and yell
'horsemeat!' at the deli counter or c) to query the manager about
whether workers picking tomatoes are treated as well as she'd like. In
my case, it was option c). As soon as I broached the question, I was
told to leave immediately or security would be called. I was swiftly
ushered out.

I wondered whether, perhaps, I'd committed a faux-pas. I speak English
with a British accent, and feared that 'tom-ah-to' might mean
something horrible and offensive in Florida. Further investigation
suggests that I'd have been kicked to the curb whether I'd said
tomahto or tomayto. There are some things one just isn't allowed to do
in a Publix supermarket. Asking politely about tomato farmworker
justice is one of them.

Yet there's good reason to wonder. Farmworkers have long faced brutal
working conditions. Rampant violations of minimum wage laws,
below-poverty annual incomes, pesticide exposure, sexual harassment,
long days without overtime pay, and retaliation for reporting abuses
aren't just plot points from a Steinbeck novel. They're a common part
of agricultural labor today.

Agricultural and food corporations have successfully lobbied for
farmworkers to be stripped of the workplace laws that protect most
other Americans, and there's little enforcement of the few legal
protections that farmworkers are meant to enjoy. The result has led
to actual cases of 'modern-day slavery' in which farmworkers have been
threatened, chained, beaten, and held against their will in debt
bondage.

There is, however, change in the fields. The Coalition of Immokalee
Workers (CIW) is an internationally renowned farmworker organization
based in SW Florida -- where most of the winter U.S. tomato crop is
harvested. They've worked with some of Florida's growers to develop a
'Fair Food Program.' Workers and growers collaborate, under the eyes
of third-party monitors, to make sure that rights for everything from
overtime to bathroom breaks are respected. Buyers reward those growers
who uphold the rights with business and withhold business from the
growers who fail to.

Sound like some hippie plot? Hardly. Currently, 90 percent of the Florida
tomato industry and 11 major food corporations, including McDonald's,
Subway, and Whole Foods, are currently part of the Fair Food Program.
Few would consider McDonald's a refuge for the great unwashed.

Publix's polished advertisements laud their deep concern for their
community. But if you're a Floridian who picks tomatoes for a living,
you're clearly not part of that community. And if you're a customer
wanting to ask about this, it seems Publix don't want you around
either.

Yet here's the irony. The Fair Food Program is all about building
community. It enshrines the rights of farmworkers never before seen in
the agricultural industry in partnership with buyers and grower.

Publix refuses to join the program, claiming that the Fair Food Program
is a "labor dispute" and that the company will not get involved. Yet
the Fair Food Program is a growing partnership that brings together
various levels of the supply chain to overturn decades of sub-poverty
wages and abuses that were, until recently, the norm. In fact, the
Washington Post recently dubbed the Fair Food Program, "one of the
great human rights success stories of our day."

Why then does Publix still refuse to join some of the leading food
retailers in making life better for the worst paid people in America?
Publix spokesperson Dwaine Stevens provided a surprisingly frank
answer
after a protest at a Publix in Alabama saying, "If there
are some atrocities going on, it's not our business"

In other words, Publix maintains the ability to buy from farms even if
human rights abuses are rampant, no questions asked. It appears, the Publix
solution to human rights abuses is to plug their fingers firmly in
their ears. Workers rights will come second to a cheaper tomato, or
more accurately, are not part of the equation at all.

Since they couldn't ask for justice inside a Publix, 1,500 people
arrived in Lakeland, home of Publix corporate headquarters, after a
200 mile march through Florida this weekend. Farmworkers like the
CIW's Gerardo Reyes will be there to insist that "though we are indeed
poor, we too are human beings and we deserve respect and dignity."

They weren't asking for special treatment. They're only asking to be
treated like human beings. And surely that deserves our support. So,
please, voice out your support when you next visit a Publix. And, take
it from me, you can say tomahtoes or tomaytoes. Either way.