Chipotle Doesn't Support Florida's Tomato Pickers? Say it ain't so, Steve.

"Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested by slave labor?"

Try to imagine a situation in which someone whom you deeply care about -- a friend, a family member, a co-worker -- is doing something wrong and totally out of character, say cheating on his wife, gambling away his children's college funds, stealing from his employer. Now, imagine how you would react to his bad behavior. Chances are, if you really care about this person, you wouldn’t ignore it; you would confront him about it, right? You would probably tell him how much he means to you, and that you don’t want to see him or the people in his life get hurt as a result of his actions. Maybe you would even organize an intervention.

I feel this way about Chipotle now. The restaurant chain is one I truly care about. I like its food; I like its hiring practices; I like its corporate philosophy. I especially like that Chipotle proves that a company can be committed to sustainability, compassion and health and still be a successful player in a capitalistic marketplace.

And yet, I’ve recently learned something about Chipotle that seems out of character with its well-publicized commitment to “Food with Integrity.” So, as a true friend would, I'm going to have to ask the company’s CEO, Steve Ells, some tough questions.

But first, some background.

According to the website Grist, Chipotle has, for four years now, turned a cold shoulder to the grassroots farmworkers’ organization, Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which is trying to improve working conditions and pay for Florida tomato pickers.

Grist's Sean Sellers writes:

"Chipotle explains on its website that, “‘Food With Integrity’ isn’t a marketing slogan.” Rather, it “means working back along the food chain. It means going beyond distributors to discover how the vegetables are grown, how the pigs, cows and chickens are raised, where the best spices come from.” For his part, Ells, the chef-cum-corporate executive, reflects, “Learning about this dark side of modern agriculture made me want to find out how we could do things differently.”

"Yet Chipotle has responded to the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields—including seven federally prosecuted cases of modern-day slavery since 1997—with silence, evasion, and cynical spin. And Ells seemingly has no compunction about using his high-profile speaking engagements to spread misinformation about the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food and the impact of his company’s policies on farmworkers.

"What is at stake is not mere public relations dividends or quarrels over the meaning of 'integrity.' Chipotle apparently believes that farmworkers are incapable of developing mutually beneficial solutions to the problems they face within the agricultural industry. And though Chipotle is but a tiny player within a massive food industry landscape, their stance flies in the face of core principles painstakingly advanced by the Campaign for Fair Food over the past decade: farmworker participation in the protection of their own labor rights; supply chain transparency; and third-party verification and monitoring.”

Sellers provides a convincing argument, starting with an accusation targeted towards those of us who tout sustainable food: “Labor and human rights have been strictly segregated from the sustainability agenda.” And then he lists some jaw-dropping statistics:
•   3 million farmworkers form the base of the trillion-dollar U.S. food industry.
•   The average yearly pay “for their backbreaking stoop labor,” is about $10,000.
•   Farmworkers aren’t protected by workplace laws, such as “the right to collective bargaining and overtime pay.”
•   Some farmworkers work “against their will for little or no pay under the threat or actual use of violence.”

He then recounts an incident in November 2007, when three farmworkers’ in Immokalee, “the heart of Florida’s winter tomato production,” escaped from a year of bondage by “punching through the ventilation hatch in a box truck where they were held captive by their employers.” In what a U.S. attorney called “one of the biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever,” 12 workers were, on a daily basis, “chained, beaten and robbed of their pay.”

Sellers continues, “The enslaved crew harvested for farms owned by two of Florida’s largest tomato growers. It was the seventh farm labor slavery case prosecuted by federal civil rights officials since 1997 now involving over 1,000 workers... which brings us to a question posed by Eric Schlosser at last year’s Slow Nation conference: ‘Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested by slave labor?’”

The rest of Seller’s piece chronicles how Chipotle has avoided supporting Florida’s tomato workers in their quest to “eliminate the root causes of modern-day slavery.” This is despite commitments from competitors Taco Bell, McDonalds, Subway and Burger King, as well as three Florida tomato producers, to work directly with CIW towards this goal. Sellers writes: “These companies are now... leveraging their buying power to address the human rights crisis in their tomato supply chains.”

What Chipotle did, instead, was offer to pay an additional penny per pound for all Florida tomatoes it purchased. But CIW and Sellers view this as inadequate: "As farmworkers – the human beings actually suffering the poverty wages and labor abuses every day in the fields – we have no role in Chipotle’s plan,” explained Gerardo Reyes of the CIW. “Under their plan, Chipotle will review its own code of conduct and decide if any changes are appropriate, Chipotle will oversee its own payments under its penny per pound plan, and Chipotle will verify its own compliance with the changes it is proposing. That’s just not credible. Transparency, verification, and participation are essential elements of the agreements we have reached with other fast-food leaders, and they are essential elements in any defensible definition of social responsibility.”

So, my first question to Steve Ells would simply be, why?

Question #2 would be this: Are you willing to tarnish the reputation of your company over this seemingly no-brainer issue? How could you possible object to doing everything you can to improve the plight of poor and powerless farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields? (That would be question #3.)

And, finally, do you know how much you are hurting the people who care about you, who have held you in such high esteem, who depend on you to provide inexpensive, convenient, delicious, nutritious and sustainably sourced food that appeals to practically everyone?

Admit you have a problem, Steve. That’s the first step. Now solve it. Pledge your full and unconditional support to CIW and Florida’s tomato pickers. Do it for them. Do it for your customers. Do it for your investors. Do it for your friends and family. Do it, because, as you say on your website, you can always "do better." Prove it. Thank you.