Emory University professor Carol Anderson pens beautifully-written opinion piece on Publix and human rights
“Atrocities: Not our Business”
Next week, the movement for corporate responsibility for human rights continues. This time, it’s not about the diamond mines of Sierra Leone but the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida. For over a decade, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a recent recipient of the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Award, has been trying to get Publix, the privately-owned grocery store giant, to deal with the documented slavery and sexual assault in the fields of Florida by joining the Fair Food Program, which ensures that there is no market for tomatoes produced under these horrific labor conditions and that one additional cent per pound would go to the workers to ensure dignity. McDonald’s signed on. Burger King agreed. Trader Joe’s stepped up. Whole Foods joined. Taco Bell was first to the table.
On the other hand, Publix corporate leaders have refused insisting that what’s happening in Florida is a “labor dispute” and they “don’t get involved in labor disputes.” That argument just doesn’t hold water. Barry Estabrook, the author of the New York Times best seller Tomatoland, noted that the Fair Food Program was in the process of transforming the Florida tomato industry from one of the most egregious, abuse riddled sectors to “becoming the most progressive group in the fruit and vegetable industry.” President Jimmy Carter agreed, as he recognized the CIW for its recent Four Freedoms Award. The president wrote “You have formed innovative partnerships to find common ground between diverse interests, including some of the poorest workers in the United States and their employers, supply chain companies, retailers, consumers and law enforcement. My hope is that this will become a model for social responsibility within the agricultural industry.”
That will not happen, however, as long as grocery stores, like Publix, provide a large, alternative market for goods extracted under the old regime of sexual harassment, forced labor, and fear. In 2010, in fact, Publix’s Media and Community Relations Manager Dwaine Stevens said, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” Well, it is America’s business. We, as a nation, seem to understand this when looking at blood diamonds. We are equally repulsed at tennis shoes produced with child labor. We now have to have the same depth of horror and resolve in looking at beautiful red, ripe tomatoes neatly stacked on the produce table.
In Florida, since 1997, the Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted seven farm labor slavery operations involving a total of well over 1,000 workers. Two additional slavery indictments in the state’s agricultural sector were handed down recently where workers, stripped of their photo identification and threatened with violence, were “denied necessary medical care” and endured rape, “chronic hunger, weight loss, illness and fatigue.” One official from the Justice Department was, therefore, compelled to label the state “ground zero for modern slavery.” The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was clear when it said in 2010 that “while the vast majority of Florida farmworkers are not enslaved, wage theft, sexual harassment, and systemic minimum wage violations remain rampant throughout the industry.” Today, those conditions are becoming a thing of the past on the 90% of farms where the Fair Food Program is in effect, but beyond the protections of that program, the abuses continue.
This quest for basic dignity is what drives the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to protest, march, campaign, demand, and negotiate. On October 3, the CIW will, once again, as it has done recently in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, put its feet on the ground in front of Publix to draw attention to the injustice. Atlanta, the home of the Civil Rights Movement, gets this.
Recently Publix had a coupon noting, “See What 1¢ Gets!” The ad suggested the bounties that waited just beyond the penny door, but the irony is too much. What can 1 cent get? Ethical conditions in Publix’s supply chain and dignity for the workers whose long undervalued labor has helped make Publix one of the richest companies in the food industry today.
Carol Anderson is Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Emory University. She is the author of Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2003).