March 10, 2008

CIW, Fair Food Austin Picket Whole Foods Annual Shareholder Meeting

March 10, 2008

Kate Kelly, (512) 560-5897
Carlos Perez de Alejo, (321) 948-3423


Whole Foods Must Partner with Coalition of Immokalee Workers to “Close Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality,” Eliminate Abuse in Florida's Fields

Austin, Texas – On Monday, March 10, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Fair Food Austin campaign will picket outside Whole Foods' annual shareholders meeting to encourage the world's leading natural and organic food retailer to take proactive steps to address sweatshop conditions in its tomato supply chain. The conditions in Florida’s tomato fields – which include an antiquated piece rate pay system that results in sub-poverty annual wages, long hours with no right to overtime pay, and no right to organize – fly in the face of the company’s much publicized commitment to buying only from producers who provide fair wages and humane treatment.

The CIW is an award-winning farmworker organization known for its exposure of several modern-day slavery operations in Florida agriculture. The CIW is appealing to major food industry players – including Austin-based retailer Whole Foods Market – to leverage their market influence to demand full respect for the human rights of the workers who pick their tomatoes. Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 company with $6.6 billion in 2007 sales.

Kate Kelly of Fair Food Austin states, “Last year, Whole Foods announced the Whole Trade Guarantee for products it purchases from overseas, claiming to 'help combat poverty' through 'better wages and working conditions for workers.' These principles should be extended to all workers in Whole Foods' produce supply chain.” Ms. Kelly continues, “Specifically, Whole Foods should partner with the CIW to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers.”

Carlos Perez de Alejo of Fair Food Austin adds, “If Whole Foods is to be the company it claims to be, it must live up to its words and partner with the CIW to help end the exploitation of Florida's farmworkers. Whole Foods must close the gap between its rhetoric and reality.”

Background: Florida’s farmworkers – including the workers who pick tomatoes for retailers such as Whole Foods – face sweatshop conditions every day in the fields, including: sub-poverty wages (tomato pickers earn roughly $10,000/year, according to the USDOL); no raise in nearly 30 years (pickers are paid virtually the same per bucket piece rate today as in 1980 - at the going rate, workers must pick more than 2.5 TONS of tomatoes just to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hr day); and the denial of fundamental labor rights (no right to overtime pay nor right to organize).

In the most extreme cases, workers face actual conditions of modern-day slavery. Federal civil rights officials have prosecuted six slavery operations – involving over 1,000 workers – in Florida's fields since 1997.

In an interview with The Nation following his January 2008 visit to farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, US Senator Bernie Sanders stated, “I think those are workers who are more ruthlessly exploited and treated with more contempt than any group of workers that I've ever seen and I suspect exist in the US." He added, "The norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery."

In 2005, the CIW resolved a four-year, nationwide boycott against Taco Bell when the fast-food leader and its parent company, Yum Brands, agreed to pay a premium for its tomatoes to directly improve workers' sub-poverty wages and to work with the CIW to address the labor abuses endemic to Florida agriculture. In 2007, after a two-year campaign, the CIW reached a similar agreement with McDonald's, the largest fast-food chain in the world.

The CIW's groundbreaking work has been recognized by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Center, Anti-Slavery International, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Business Ethics Network, among others. The CIW received support from the Editorial Board of the Austin American-Statesman, “Penny pinchers won't let tomato pickers have it their way,” (1/11/08) and has received extensive national and international media coverage since 2001.