The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Immokalee Workers Tell Chipotle to Walk Its Talk

by Kari Lydersen

Tomato pickers have targeted McDonald’s and the green-tongued Chipotle restaurant chain for buying tomatoes from growers that underpay workers.

Oct. 31, 2006 – "Honest Ingredients" read the spare white Chipotle Mexican Grill billboards sprouting up in the franchise’s home base of Denver and other metropolitan areas. They are part of Chipotle’s "Food with Integrity" marketing campaign designed to paint the company as hip, healthy, ethical and gourmet, despite being a major fast-food chain with over 500 stores and once majority-owned by McDonald’s.

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The company touts its concern for animal welfare; Chipotle claims all its pork and a percentage of its chicken and beef come from "free-range" farms rather than factory farms, where animals are jammed into spaces so small they can barely move. It also boasts of using a high percentage of organic and sustainably grown produce. 

But one element of Chipotle’s food production calls the company’s "Food with Integrity" slogan into question: the workers who harvest the tomatoes and other vegetables for Chipotle’s burritos make less than $10,000 a year.     

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a South Florida farm workers organization, is demanding that Chipotle and McDonald’s sign a workers’ rights agreement similar to one the CIW negotiated with Yum Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, last spring after a four-year-long campaign.       

The agreement would ensure workers are paid one penny more per pound of tomatoes picked. The cent is a pittance for a major company, say the workers, but a significant difference to immigrant laborers who are struggling to survive and send remittances to families in their home countries.

The agreement would ensure workers are paid one penny more per pound of tomatoes picked.

The Chipotle and McDonald’s initiatives are the CIW’s latest attempt to target highly-visible corporations to leverage change in the entire industry. These companies, say the farmworkers, could use their significant buying power to demand changes from their suppliers as a prerequisite for doing business.

According to the CIW, workers in the Immokalee fields currently make between 40 and 50 cents for each bushel of tomatoes picked. With 32 pounds to the bushel, it takes picking about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes to make just $56 a day. If workers’ pay were increased by one penny per pound – like it was for those harvesting tomatoes for Taco Bell –laborers working for Chipotle contractors would make approximately $96 for the same weight.

Chipotle’s website says: "We want to know where all of our ingredients come from, so that we can be sure they are as flavorful as possible while understanding the environmental and societal impact of our business. We call this idea ‘food with integrity,’ and it guides how we run our business."    

But worker and organizer Romeo Ramirez argues that Chipotle cannot claim to dish up food that is "just" if it only focuses on animal welfare. "They also have to respect human rights," he said.

"Chipotle, of all companies, can't try to escape accountability for those conditions by pretending that moving from one state to another."

In response to the Immokalee workers’ campaign, Chipotle executives have said that in the past, Florida tomatoes accounted for only about 20 percent of their supply, purchased only during a 12-week season. And "in light of CIW’s claims," Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold told TNS, the company has suspended purchases of Florida tomatoes "entirely."

"While we have not seen any evidence at all of the kinds of issues CIW points out occurring within our supply chain," said Arnold, "it is something we take very seriously, and we will not begin purchasing Florida tomatoes until we can look into those claims further."

Coalition members say that by avoiding Immokalee tomatoes, Chipotle is passing up an opportunity to help force change in an exploitative industry. Though the Immokalee workers’ campaigns have succeeded in bringing the plight of southern Florida’s farm laborers to a national audience, conditions and pay for farmworkers remain horrendous throughout the country.

Farmworkers are among the nation’s lowest-paid workers, on average making less than $10,000 a year with no paid vacation or health benefits, according to the US Department of Labor.

Unlike workers in other industries, farmworkers do not have the legal right to overtime pay or collective bargaining guaranteed under federal law to other workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Workers in Immokalee and many other agricultural areas wake at dawn to wait for work. They are selectively hired each day at the growers’ will. They spend unpaid hours waiting and in-transit, often working twelve- to fourteen-hour days. 

"Chipotle can have a vital impact on the movement for fair food and the respect for farmworkers’ rights in this country."

"Chipotle, of all companies, can't try to escape accountability for those conditions by pretending that moving from one state to another will solve the problem when they well know – or simply can't claim they don't know by now – that the same or worse conditions prevail throughout the agricultural industry," said Greg Asbed, a CIW organizer.  

Chipotle was started in 1993 and mushroomed from less than 20 stores to several hundred stores after McDonald’s bought up a majority interest in the company starting in 1998. CEO Steve Ells was quoted in the trade journal Shopping Centers Today calling McDonald’s a "rich uncle" that allowed Chipotle to grow by, among other things, tapping into low-cost, bulk purchasing agreements with suppliers.

In October, McDonald’s completely divested from Chipotle, leaving the company able to negotiate preferential bulk-purchase deals itself.

"Chipotle can have a vital impact on the movement for fair food and the respect for farmworkers’ rights in this country," said Amanda Shanor, program officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, a long-time supporter of the CIW. "If Chipotle were to join the movement for fair food, they would make a material contribution towards moving the entire agri-food industry towards true ‘food with integrity.’"   

Lorenzo Uriostegui Jimenez, 47, is a tomato picker who has been working in Immokalee for four years after moving from his home state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. He works long days to save $200 to send to his wife and six kids each month. He earns only about $40 a day, if he’s lucky.          

"I wish I could send more [to my family], but that’s all I can earn," he said in an interview during a protest outside a McDonald’s in Chicago. Jimenez said he lives with four or five other men crammed in a small, run-down trailer, for which he pays between $300 and $400 a month in rent.

"The trailers are broken with rats and cockroaches in them," he said. "There’s no air conditioning, TV or hot water. The windows don’t work. But the rent is very expensive."

This description mirrors the conditions found in an ongoing North Carolina Department of Labor investigation into the housing situations of workers for Ag-Mart, a McDonald’s supplier of tomatoes which also has farms in Florida and New Jersey. State labor officials described crowded, filthy conditions with no hot water or showers, a shortage of beds and houses with roaches.

Jimenez notes that if workers do not pick the required 125 bushels of tomatoes – two tons – a day, they aren’t hired the next day. He said the requirements push him to work hard even when he has injuries or grinding fatigue.

But Jimenez thinks the workers will succeed in convincing Chipotle – and eventually McDonald’s – to agree to their demands. "We have a lot of support from students and religious people," he said. Gesturing at a plastic bushel basket on the ground during the protest in Chicago, he adds, "All we want is one more cent."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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