Farm workers are on their feet all day, so what better way to send a message? A group about 100 strong were walking across Florida trying to urge Kroger and Publix to join the Fair Food Program. Many competitors of the two stores are already a part of the crusade. Retailers like Walmart and Trader Joe’s only do business with growers that follow a code of conduct which provides a safe environment for workers.
The Fair Food Program began in 2010 and is a partnership among farmers, farm workers, and retail food companies that ensure humane wages and working conditions for people who feed families.
What sparked the protest march was the recent sentencing of Bladimir Moreno, owner of Los Villatoros Harvesting, who will be spending the next nine years in a federal prison for federal racketeering and operating a forced labor camp in Pahokee, Fla. Moreno’s operation was a horrific one. Workers did not receive promised wages, were held at gun point and were encased in a barbed-wire fence at night. Two men managed to escape and fled to Immokalee, which was known for decades as Ground Zero for modern slavery.
Retailers in the Fair Food Program also help with paying laborers. They agree to pay about 1 cent more per pound to the grower, who in turn gives workers a bonus. So far $40 million has been re-distributed impacting around 30,000 workers each season.
"Farm work is hard work. There is no denying that. We appreciate the work achieved in order to get product off the land and on our customers’ tables," Publix said in an emailed statement to Supermarket News. "We value the relationships along the path from 'farm to fork' and realize it takes a lot of people, each providing a great service.
"Publix remains the focus of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who seeks to pressure us to become involved in the employment relationship between Florida farmers who grow tomatoes and the farm workers they employ to harvest their product. Since first approached by the CIW in 2009, we have consistently viewed this issue as a labor dispute, and our position remains the same today."
Kroger has not responded to an email request by Supermarket News.
Kroger’s own laborers also have had issues with the grocer.
Four lawsuits have been filed accusing Kroger of paying employees less than they were supposed to make or failing to deliver payment at all. The culprit behind the error seems to be a new payroll system called MyTime or MyInfo. The lawsuits note the problems arose between September and November of last year and happened in four states: Ohio, Oregon, Washington and Virginia. The lawsuits also accuse Kroger of violating several state and federal laws.
Kroger said many of the issues have been resolved and that it has taken the necessary steps to expedite payments to employees impacted by the error. Still, the lawsuits tell a story of despair. Some employees had to take second jobs or pull out high-interest loans due to the shortchanging and missed payments.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote a letter to Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen about the issue. The lawmakers wanted to know the specifics behind the problem and what Kroger has done to resolve it.