February 22, 2010

Daily Texan: "Aramark and the art of the slow no"

By Estella Cota
Daily Texan Guest Columnist
February 18, 2010

For nearly one year, students and members of the community group Fair Food Austin have petitioned Aramark, the food-service provider of the Texas Union, to reach an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers. And for nearly one year, Aramark representatives at both the local and national levels have responded with silence, misinformation and delay tactics.

Students at Aramark-serviced campuses from Florida to California report similar experiences.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a Florida-based farmworker organization at the cutting edge of human rights advocacy and corporate accountability. Since 2005, the CIW has signed “fair food” agreements with fast-food leaders Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut), McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway. It reached its first supermarket agreement with Whole Foods Market in 2007. And last year, the CIW expanded into the food-service industry by formalizing partnerships with Compass Group and Bon Appetit Management Company.

These accords are being implemented at three Florida farms, including the state’s third largest tomato producer. Tomato harvesters at these farms are receiving fairer wages and are ensured a voice on the job. The farms, in turn, receive a premium price for more fairly produced tomatoes and preferential supplier status from participating retail giants. The campaign represents a win-win-win scenario for workers, growers and retailers alike. It is an innovative, market-based solution to the structural problems of farmworker poverty and powerlessness.

Florida farm labor conditions span a dark spectrum from everyday exploitation to extremes of forced labor. In fact, as the CIW and law enforcement officials testified before a 2008 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, the Department of Justice has prosecuted seven modern-day slavery cases in Florida agriculture since 1997. These cases almost certainly represent only the tip of the iceberg and stem from the retrograde labor relations at the heart of the industry.

Aramark’s Texas Union outlets claim not to source tomatoes from the sunshine state (as if labor conditions in Mexico are any better), yet the company as a whole buys a significant volume of Florida tomatoes for dining halls along the eastern seaboard and throughout the Midwest. As documented in a 2004 Oxfam American study, these high-volume, low-cost purchasing policies directly translate into downward pressure on farmworkers’ wages and working conditions. Despite its invisible yet real involvement in the lives of tomato harvesters, Aramark refuses to join the reform movement already underway.

“When we first started this campaign, back during the Taco Bell boycott, we learned a new term: the ‘Slow No,’” said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW. “That’s where corporations string you along with meeting after meeting, trying to maintain the illusion that they’re working toward a solution when, in fact, they’re busy working on a parallel path toward a different deal intended to perpetuate the very problem you’re trying to solve.”

“Whether they admit it or not, we think that’s exactly what Aramark is doing today,” continued Reyes. “They were talking with us, claiming they wanted to work with us, when in fact they’re working with the growers on yet another ‘fox guarding the henhouse’ deal, despite the fact that Florida tomato growers have never been capable of policing themselves. Well, that’s not acceptable, and we’re quite sure it won’t be acceptable to students on the campuses where Aramark does business.”

Aramark could learn a lot from competitor Bon Appetit, the food-service provider at St. Edward’s University in South Austin. Because Bon Appetit signed an agreement with the CIW in April 2009, it is now serving students ethically produced tomatoes whenever possible. Bon Appetit not only respected the farmworkers in its supply chain enough to forge a genuine partnership but also respected the informed opinions of its student customer base. Aramark’s behavior, on the other hand, provides a bitter study in contrast.

Hopefully the Texas Union board and University administrators will remember this when Aramark’s contract comes up for renewal.

Cota is an engineering junior.