Tuesday, March 26th, 2013...5:09 pm

Marching in the face of status

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Over spring break I joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the last legs of their celebration of the New Day for farm workers, the 200-mile March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food. According to their website:

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.

The bus following the march

The bus following the march

Since the 1990’s, the CIW has fought for higher wages, freedom from sexual harassment and modern day slavery, rights to healthy and safe working conditions, and more for primarily tomato workers.

This march was highly relevant to not only my thesis work on tomatoes–almost all of the signs we carried represented the tomato in some fashion or another–but also to our discussion on farm work and social status.

One of many tomato signs

One of many tomato signs

I wrote earlier a little bit about the lack of respect for farm laborers’ work. When it comes to migrant farm laborers, this is icing on a cake of unjust, exploitative, and racist practices.

The question this post is centered around was the basis for the 2 week-long trek undertaken by the Coalition and its allies: how can a supermarket that touts the great working conditions of its employees refuse to support workers further back on the supply chain?

Let me explain the situation behind this question.

Over the years, with support from student groups, people of faith, and human rights groups, the CIW has signed on companies like Taco Bell, McDonalds, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and Chipotle to work together to improve worker conditions. As part of the Fair Food Program, these companies agree to meet demands for “corporate supply chain accountability in the food industry, including economic responsibility for farmworker poverty, supply chain transparency, and the participation of farmworkers in the protection of their own rights,” according to the Alliance for Fair Food website.

The blue flags display rights the CIW works for

The blue flags display rights the CIW works for.

In an effort to engage with more of the supermarket world, the CIW has been focusing on Publix, “the largest and fastest-growing employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States,” as stated on the company’s website. They go on, listing in their mission statement a commitment to being “dedicated to the Dignity, Value and Employment Security of our Associates.

The statue carried at the front of the march representing the farm workers of the CIW.

The statue carried at the front of the march representing the farm workers of the CIW.

However, Publix has been refusing to join the Fair Food Program, citing inaccurate information. More can be read about this here.

Thus we are left with this week’s paradox: a supermarket valuing workers rights, yet denying other workers rights. Doesn’t make much sense on paper, but looking at the social status associated not just with farmers, but with farm laborers (semantic differences based on ownership), it’s not terribly surprising. The supermarket spokesperson explains that they won’t pay another company’s workers more money (although that’s not how the system proposed by the Fair Food Program works.) What this demonstrates is a continued distancing from the conditions of production that got us here in the first place.

The distancing and devaluing of farm work here is coupled with racist ideas often voiced as fears about losing American jobs to migrant workers. For a interesting article on migrant farm workers, including a section on “stolen jobs,” check out this piece from the Economist.

The closing rally in front of Publix's corporate headquarters.

The closing rally in front of Publix’s corporate headquarters.

The work of the CIW is important, I believe, not only for the farm workers in Florida, but for farm workers across the nation. If the CIW can make headway in the face of numerous status issues, they can easily serve as inspiration and a model for other agricultural workers, migrant and otherwise. Workers everywhere can benefit from the New Day the CIW is fighting for.

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