12/16/2014 08:59 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

An Attack on Eva Longoria

An explosive four-part series in the Los Angeles Times by acclaimed investigative journalist Richard Marosi recently chronicled the horrific conditions that farmworkers face in Mexico's vegetable fields. Wage theft, violence at the hands of their bosses, debt bondage and modern day slavery -- these are but some of the abuses workers face while working for powerful agribusiness interests there.

But the LA Times series didn't just document the horrors of Mexico's fields. Rather, Marosi's courageous reporting (violent drug cartels control large swaths of Mexico's rural communities and have even infiltrated portions of the country's agricultural industry, making media coverage of workers' issues a dangerous business) took the significant step of asking why these conditions continue to exist in the 21st century. And his findings placed at least some of the blame for Mexico's crisis on the American supermarket conglomerates that buy billions of dollars of Mexican produce annually -- no questions asked.

Human rights violations in Mexico's fields are not new. In fact, advocates have been drawing attention to the poor condition of Mexican farmworkers for decades. Indeed, every distributor and supermarket buyer who has ever been to Mexico knows that the human rights situation there is nothing short of abysmal. Yet, while U.S. buyers will not travel to their suppliers' fields without the protection of armored cars and an entourage of armed security guards worthy of a president, they have been far less vigilant when it comes to protecting the lives of the men and women who pick the produce they buy there.

Instead, we have a curious practice in this country of hiding behind pieces of paper when confronted with moral dilemmas. Supermarkets and American produce buyers all have Codes of Conduct for their supply chains. These codes are lovely, idealistic expectations that workers in their chains will be treated well and with respect. Supermarkets demand that suppliers sign these codes but, sadly, they do almost nothing to ensure they are actually enforced.

Here in the United States, however, a very different story is unfolding in Florida's fields, fields that compete directly with Mexican produce on U.S. produce shelves. Farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) have taken on the retail food giants, and in the process they are quietly building a new model for a more modern, more just food system. Their tireless efforts and brilliant new Fair Food Program are the subject of my film Food Chains.

For generations, conditions in Florida were not so different from those Marosi discovered in Mexico. Florida's farmworkers faced abuses ranging from rampant sexual harassment, to wage theft, violence against workers and even modern-day slavery. Indeed, the seminal Edward R. Murrow documentary "Harvest of Shame" was filmed largely in the sunshine state. And just as is the case in Mexico today, restaurant chains and supermarkets regularly continued to buy -- no questions asked -- from an industry that produced as many headlines for outrageous farm labor abuse as it did loads of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But, starting in 2001 with the launch of their Campaign for Fair Food, the CIW changed all of this by demanding that the large buyers of tomatoes hold Florida growers accountable for any human rights violations on their farms. They won agreements with a dozen of the largest tomato buyers in the world, and now the Fair Food Code of Conduct serves as a model for agriculture everywhere. If a worker is mistreated on a farm, that farm can no longer sell to companies like Walmart, Subway, and McDonalds. This has made farm owners, who historically escaped legal consequences for their subordinates' transgressions, economically liable. Now, tomato farmers in Florida work in partnership with workers to ensure safe, humane conditions. It's a beautiful system and it's working.

The battle for rights in the field of Florida has not ended, however. Many large retail food corporations continue to fight the CIW's award-winning Fair Food Program. This includes Publix, the south's largest grocery chain with nearly $30 billion in annual sales. Food Chains focuses on the CIW's fight to convince Publix to do its part to help end farmworker exploitation.

Publix is based in Florida and is an important buyer of Florida tomatoes, so it is not surprising that it has great influence over Florida growers. But when one of those growers attacked the CIW's Campaign for Fair Food in a recent letter to the editor of the Miami Herald -- calling the CIW's efforts to pressure Publix "offensive" -- it was surprising, given that the grower was Kent Shoemaker, CEO of Lipman Produce. Lipman is Florida's largest tomato grower and a leading partner in the Fair Food Program.

While for industry insiders Mr. Shoemaker's letter was a transparent effort to curry favor with Publix and win their coveted business, it was Mr. Shoemaker's public attack on Food Chains producer Eva Longoria that drew public attention to the letter. Unfortunately, that attack included a conveniently incomplete presentation of the facts that, in Ms. Longoria's defense, demand to be set straight.

Mr. Shoemaker took Ms. Longoria to task for not having yet visited Immokalee, Fla., the location where our production team did most of its filming. His letter's hook was a public challenge to Ms. Longoria to visit his farms in Immokalee, closing with the down home promise that the "tomatoes, of course, are on us."

What Mr. Shoemaker didn't mention is that he and Ms. Longoria had spoken by phone and discussed a visit to Immokalee well before he wrote his letter to the editor. And Ms. Longoria accepted. In fact, she immediately proposed a date that fit into her incredibly busy schedule, but Mr. Shoemaker discovered a conflicting obligation and couldn't make the date work. When Mr. Shoemaker's schedule opened up, Ms. Longoria's had already been filled, and they agreed to arrange another date. Then Mr. Shoemaker's letter appeared in the Miami Herald as though none of that had ever happened.

To Mr. Shoemaker's credit, he has apologized, but the episode is a compelling reminder of just how powerful the business of companies like Publix can be in shaping the behavior of the suppliers who want their business. For years in Florida, that overwhelming market power drove farmworker poverty and abuse. But, today, the CIW's Fair Food Program has harnessed the volume purchasing might of the retail food giants to raise farmworker wages and improve working conditions.

And those are the facts that really matter in this story. Since the inception of the Fair Food Program in 2010, wages on participating farms have risen by as much as 50-70 percent through a combination of measures. Those include a penny-per-pound premium paid by participating retailers and passed on to workers as a line item bonus on their weekly paychecks, the elimination of a longstanding practice known as "cupping" that resulted in up to 10 percent of a worker's labor going unpaid, and piece rate increases after three decades of stagnant rates. Those increases have come as growers, engaged in the new world of social responsibility and the productivity gains that come with a happier workforce, have begun to compete to be the "employer of choice."

For decades growers vowed never to "compete on the basis of social responsibility," but in Florida those days are on their way out. Social responsibility is like the genie that, once out of the bottle, cannot be forced back in.

And that's why Eva Longoria and I share Mr. Shoemaker's opinion that farmers should not be the target of our ire. In fact, Florida's tomato farmers have been pivotal in partnering with workers to create what has been called "the best working environment in American agriculture" on the front page of the New York Times.

No, this holiday season, we must ask why some large supermarkets continue to willfully promote systems, like the Mexican produce industry, that fail to respect workers rights, while continuing to resist systems that treat workers as they should be treated, like human beings. Those supermarkets that resist the solution to worker abuses in the tomato industry - Florida's Fair Food Program - should be taken to task. Those corporations include Safeway, Kroger, Stop and Shop and Florida's own megalith Publix.

It's time for everyone to join the Campaign for Fair Food. See the film. Join the movement.