Q&A with Food Chains Director Sanjay Rawal, March Planned Monday at West Palm Beach Publix

Q&A with Food Chains Director Sanjay Rawal, March Planned Monday at West Palm Beach Publix

Less than a decade ago, the Everglades farming town of Immokalee was often described as the headquarters of agricultural abuse in the United States. Stories of bosses beating, forcing free labor, and using horrifying intimidation tactics were commonplace.

The abuses were so widespread, that Immokalee was described by the Department of Justice as "ground zero for modern day slavery [in agriculture] in the United States."

Much of the dire poverty of the workers and exploitive practices of the agribusiness is chronicled in journalist Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Detroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

In one case, two Immokalee brothers Giovanni and Cesar Navarete were sentenced in 2008 to 12 years in federal prison for enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan tomato pickers, chaining workers to poles, and forcing them to sleep cramped in the back of a UHaul for over a year and making the workers subject to frequent physical abuse.

But in the last four years with the formation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) a major solution to ending exploitation, abuse, and poverty in the fields has been addressed with the creation of the Fair Food Program - a unique partnership between major retailers, farmers, farmworkers to end tremendous abuses in the fields and work towards a living wage for workers.

Barry Estabrook has even noted that because of the painstaking efforts of the CIW, what was once the most oppressive sector in American agriculture, is now the most progressive.

The Fair Food Program works to persuade retailers to agree to pay farmworkers one penny more per pound of tomatoes. It might not seem like much, but their wages are in fact doubled and the trickle down effect to consumers is roughly 44 cents more a year out of pocket. It has been named the best workplace human rights program in the U.S. by the New York Times.

The partnerships, ongoing successes, and continuing struggles of the Fair Food Program and the CIW are beautifully chronicled in the documentary Food Chains released November 21st.

Inspired by many of the stories in Tomatoland, the film (featuring Eva Longoria, Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser, and narrator Forest Whitaker) explores the human cost associated with our food and how even, while half of a trillion dollars is generated by major food corporations, the pickers of said food live below the poverty live, often averaging 12 to 14 hour days for $42 worth of pay or roughly $12,000 a year in wages.

While the Fair Food Program can now count Walmart, Whole Foods, and many others

as participants, Publix (Florida's largest supermarket chain) has not come to the table.

Much of Food Chains concentrates of the frustrations of the CIW's ongoing fight to communicate with the Florida supermarket chain.

A screening and discussion of Food Chains will start at 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 24th at the Muvico Parisian 20 IMAX Theater in City Place, 545 Hibiscus St., West Palm Beach. Before the screening, at 5 p.m. supporters will march from CityPlace to Publix (two blocks away) and demand that Publix join the Fair Food Program. Learn more about the march at tcfairfood.org.

Tickets are available at tugg.com/events. Visit the foodchainsfilm.com for more screening dates and times.

Clean Plate Charlie recently spoke with Food Chains Director and Producer Sanjay Rawal about the film, the successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and what is next in the fair food fight. 

CPC: How did this documentary come about and why Immokalee as the subject?

Rawal: This documentary is the manifestation of three aspects of my life that unexpectedly collided in June 2011. My father is a tomato breeder and in 2011, he and I were running a small agricultural genetics company together, which took me to Florida often. In the decade prior, I had worked in over 40 nations as a human rights specialist. At the same time, I consider myself a devout practitioner of meditation, which is the reason I moved from California to New York City after graduating from university. I moved to New York specifically to study with the late Indian teacher Sri Chinmoy who taught me, amongst other things, the importance of gratitude.

I had traveled to southern Florida in June 2011, reading a book my father had recommended - Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, which chronicled the then-exploitation of tomato workers in Florida. As l I drove thru Immokalee after the conference, the site of much of Barry's reporting, I was viscerally shaken. As I saw the living conditions of workers, I hadn't imagined that the exploitation I had seen overseas could exist on our shores. And I realized on a deeper level that because I didn't have awareness of who picked my food, the gratitude I might feel for it was laced with hypocrisy.

Barry's book ends with the victories of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose Fair Food Program transformed the tomato fields of Florida. It was that transformation which informed this documentary - that exploitation didn't have to be the norm, that there was hope to bring dignity to every fieldworker in America.

Some of those involved in the making of Food Chains have marveled at the changes in the last four years in Florida agriculture and how with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has transformed into one of the most progressive states in agriculture. What tactics seem to be working?

Rawal: The Fair Food Program is remarkable. Through it, tomato farmers in Florida have joined forces with workers in fighting the power of large buyers. They have brought the system into balance to some degree. When the CIW began their campaign for fair food, protest was an essential element. They are still battling several big buyers of tomatoes like Publix and Wendy's, but Walmart signed the Fair Food Program without a single public protest. They did so on the strength of the Fair Food Program. People are beginning to see that this unique partnership between farmworkers and farmers is resulting in a dramatically different work environment in the fields. Working together, farmers and farmworkers have turned Florida's tomato fields from "ground zero for modern day slavery" to a zone totally devoid of forced labor. Barry Estabrook noted that what was once the most oppressive sector in American agriculture is now the most progressive.

In the film, its mentioned that the average reporting of sexual harassment by American women in the workforce is around 25 percent but in the fields, for women workers, that sexual harassment skyrockets to around 80 percent. To the average consumer who might not make the connection, Can you talk a little about how the fair food label will help to protect female farm workers from sexual harassment?

Rawal: When a worker is living below the poverty line, missing a paycheck can have a devastating effect. What this means is that workers become more reluctant to do things that might jeopardize their jobs and families, like complaining about unfair treatment. Many states don't have adequate mechanisms for farmworkers to complain anonymously much less see swift justice, so what we see nationwide is a rash of horrific exploitation in agriculture. When workers lose their voices, they become easy victims. The Fair Food Program has created a mechanism for workers to complain without fear, but more importantly it has created an incentive for agribusiness to resolve the complaints. If a farm is not in compliance with a special Code of Conduct, they can no longer sell tomatoes to 12 of the largest buyers on the planet. That ensures that management and farm bosses are all aligned when it comes to providing a safe environment for workers.

So what we've seen in Florida is a dramatic decrease in incidents of sexual harassment. What was once impossible to enforce is now part of core business practices. The Fair Food Program has zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the fields, so farm bosses are trained to treat female workers properly (or get fired themselves) and workers are trained to recognize harassment and to complain. The CIW's Fair Food Label is a seal that. amongst other things, female workers in Florida's tomato fields are being treated with dignity.

In California, female workers call the fields "the green motel" because of the pressure women feel to tolerate sexual harassment (and worse). But that reality has been transformed for female farmworkers in Florida's tomato industry. 

Has there been a response from Publix to the film? With so many larger fast food corporations and major retailers signing on, was there a bit of a surprise that Publix (having been a Florida-based company that may have special understanding or at the very least, basic knowledge of the plight of Immokalee workers) has not?

Rawal: Our film chronicles the CIW's battle against Florida's largest retailer Publix, which after years of protests has not even answered a phone call from the CIW. We have not received any response from Publix on the film either. But Publix's intransigence is not surprising. Those who have read Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize winning book The Devil in the Grove understand the historic reality of agribusiness in Central Florida, where Publix was founded in 1930.

Central Florida in the 1930s was home to both a large population of poor African American farmworkers as well as a stronghold for the Klan. Publix was founded, like many Southern businesses, as a whites only establishment. Thankfully, many of the African American farmworker families from that region were lifted out of poverty through the Civil Rights movement. But they've been replaced by Latino farmworkers. And while Publix has changed its attitude toward African Americans, it seems like it hasn't changed its attitude toward the people who now work on farms.

The Fair Foods labeling system seems to involve all facets of the agriculture industry from farm workers to growers to retail brands. Was it important to show how all parties involved can benefit from the labeling - even down to the consumers?

Rawal: Giant food chains have what economists call "monopsony power" over the supply chain. In a monopoly, one retail corporation controls the supply and thus can control the prices consumers pay. A monopsony is not consumer facing, but supplier facing. And to effectively set the price that a supplier must accept for goods, a retailer doesn't need to have 100 percent of the market. In fact, in the case of the supermarket industry they can have as little as 25 percent of the market.

The way this manifests in the food industry is interesting. Farms and retailers are not vertically integrated, meaning that most farms sell the same products to multiple retailers, like tomatoes. But if a farm wants to sell to the largest retailer, and invariably most farms do, they have to grow everything to the specifications of that one large retailer. This is one reason why a cucumber at Safeway is identical to a cucumber at Kroger or Walmart. Large buyers effectively set the terms for all supplier that want to sell to them. The larger the buyer, the more power they have to conform the market to their needs.

In fact when Walmart entered grocery, it was the first buyer to purchase huge quantities (good for farmers), but at low prices (not so good for farmers). Walmart did this in order to give consumers the lowest possible prices. When other retailers saw this and saw that their consumers were flocking to Walmart, they started the same purchasing practices - buy in huge quantities for low prices and low margins. This effectively reshaped the US food industry.

And what this meant was that farmer profits were drastically reduced leaving no space to increase wages for farmworkers, even when farmers want to. It's easy to point the finger at farmers for the exploitation of workers. That is definitely not the case now. If one wants to understand abuse, one has to look at who has the real power in the supply chain.

So the system is one based on very cheap labor. And when people are earning sub poverty wages, they are much more tolerant of abuse. The choice might be to speak up or maintain the ability to feed one's family. In an environment where workers are so desperate for their paychecks that they're willing to tolerate abuses, exploitation can thrive.

And the US justice system is designed to punish the perpetrators of crimes, in the case of farming, low-level managers or contractors. The justice system isn't designed to look at the economic pressures creating the exploitation.

Laws to address monopsonies exist but they are so complicated that they're rarely, if ever, enforced.

This is why the CIW's Fair Food Program is so effective. The CIW recognizes that the big buyers have placed the entire system in a chokehold, as it were. They realized that this pressure must be released, even just by pennies in order to relieve the pressure on workers. The only entity that can influence these large buyers is the consumer.

Is there a plan to apply the successes of the Fair Foods Program to other harvests in other states?

Rawal: When Walmart signed the Fair Food Program this last January, they pledged to expand it outside Florida. Many of Florida's tomato growers also have operations up the Eastern seaboard, so that expansion won't prove to be complicated. But Walmart also pledged to include other crops. As controversial as Walmart's own labor practices are, their attitude toward agricultural workers is more progressive than any other large buyer in the United States. If a consumer wants a Fair Food zucchini, chances are Walmart will have it sooner than any other retailer.

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