Fresh off victories against restaurants and foodservice companies, a group promoting fair treatment for Florida farmworkers is now turning its focus on supermarkets.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a grassroots organization that advocates better working and living conditions for thousands of Florida farm workers, many of them Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants. It has successfully campaigned against Taco Bell, Burger King, Sodexo, Aramark and other companies that source tomatoes, citrus fruits and other Florida produce, persuading them to agree to its terms of paying an additional penny for every pound of tomatoes it sources and establishing a code of conduct with suppliers.
Now, the CIW is kicking off a campaign focusing on four major retailers: Publix, Kroger, Ahold and Trader Joe's. The CIW and groups affiliated with it have staged protests outside store locations, organized letter-writing campaigns to CEOs, and coordinated various other means of lobbying the companies to alter their sourcing practices, and to pay the extra penny to growers. Earlier this month, supporters held a National Supermarket Week of Action, aimed at raising awareness and turning up the heat on protests.
“Grocery stores buy a huge percentage of produce that is produced here in Florida,” said Rudy Cortinas, national coordinator with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a CIW partner. “We thought it a natural step [to turn to them] after our previous victories.”
The CIW and others have been especially active in protesting Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix, claiming that the farmworkers who harvest many of its tomatoes and other produce live in conditions akin to “modern-day slavery.” Publix, in response, says the matter is a labor dispute between the suppliers and the growers, and that any worker abuses should be handled through law enforcement.
“Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such behavior,” said spokeswoman Maria Brous.
Whole Foods signed on with the CIW in 2008. Cortinas said the coalition's future success depends on consumer awareness and action.