July 3, 2008 The Pump Handle 2Comment

The Chipotle restaurant chain’s corporate philosophy is “Food with Integrity”:

“we can always do better in terms of the food we buy.  And …we mean better in every sense of the word—better tasting, coming from better sources, better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for the farmers who raise the animals and grow the produce.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and others wants to know how Chiptole’s philosophy translates to the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes used in the restaurant’s burritos. 

CIW offers this snapshot into the workday of a Florida tomato picker:

  • 4:30 am: Wake-up. Prepare lunch in your trailer.
  • 5:00 am: Walk to the parking lot or pick-up site to begin looking for work.
  • 6:30 am: With luck, a contractor will choose you to work for him for the day. The job may be 10 miles to 100 miles away. Board the contractor’s old bus to go to the fields.
  • 7:30 am: Arrive at the fields and begin weeding or waiting while the dew evaporates from the tomatoes. You are usually not paid for this time.
  • 9:00 am: Begin picking tomatoes—filling buckets, hoisting them on your shoulder, running them 100 feet or more to the truck and throwing the bucket up into the truck — all for a token worth 40-50 cents.  Work fast because you must pick 2 TONS of tomatoes in oder to earn $50 today. (This may or may not be possible depending on the time of year and the quantity of tomatoes on the plants.)
  • Noon: Eat lunch as fast as you can, often with your hands soaked in pesticides. Return to work under the smoldering Florida sun.
  • 5:00 pm: (sometimes much later, depending on the season): Board bus to return to Immokalee.
  • Between 5:30 pm and 8:00 pm: Arrive in Immokalee and walk home.

And the next day, get up and do it all again.  (Photos here)

Two years ago, the CIW asked Chipotle’s Chairman and CEO Steve Ellis to follow the example taken now by the world’s three largest fast-food companies to improve the low-wages paid and dire working conditions faced by tomato pickers.  To date, Chipotle’s executives have evaded the call and their “Food with Integrity” philosphy doesn’t translate to the plight of farmworkers.

Several years ago, CIW reached an historic agreement with the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC (Yum Brands), to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers in Florida.  In 2007, McDonald’s signed an agreement to ensure that its produce suppliers pay an additional penny per pound for Florida tomatoes, with the extra pennies paid directly to farmworkers. 

The victory of an extra penny a pound didn’t come easy from Yum Brands or McDonalds, but Burger King executives took their resistance to farmworker justice to a new level.  They dug in their heels for three years and got downright nasty.  The editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times wrote:

“Burger King was an obstinate holdout, publicly deriding the coalition’s claims tht the farmworkers were exploited.  …the company went so far as to hire an unlicensed private investigation firm known for its undercover tactics of infiltrating labor groups.” (5/30/08) 

Similarly, an editorial in the Palm Beach Post noted

“Burger King gained its social conscience the hard way.  …the company had to fire two high-ranking executives after the disclosure that they were trying to sabotage the farmworkers’ efforts.” (5/28/08) 

But just about a month ago, Burger King and the CIW reached an agreement, with the fast-food CEO saying:

“We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW or its motives previously attributed to BKC or its employees and now realize that those statements were wrong. Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farmworkers.”

Now, with Yum Brands, McDonalds, and Burger King agreeing to an enforceable code of conduct to protect farmworkers’ rights, Chiptole is the final hold-out.  A couple of years ago when a national boycott of Yum Brands was in high gear, Chipotle said that it was suspending purchases of tomatoes from Florida and planning to investigate the allegations of abusive labor practices against the farmworkers. 

A recent statement issued by CIW notes:

“Nearly two years have passed sinced Chipotle launched its ‘investigation’ and many questions now beg to be answered.”

  • “Where are the results of Chipotle’s inquiry into Florida’s farm labor conditions?”
  • “Where has Chipotle been purchasing tomatoes in the meantime and how to workers fare in those fields?”
  • “Is Chipotle actually supplying its East coast restaurants with tomatoes from Mexico?” and what are the labor conditions for those workers?
  • Are transparency and human rights not a part of Chipotle’s definition of ‘integrity’?”

CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food urges Chipotle customers to print out this letter and hand it to the manager at your local Chipotle restaurant.   It’s the least we can do for farmworkers—who probably can’t afford Chipotle’s version of rice and beans….and tomatoes.





2 thoughts on “Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” ignores tomato pickers

  1. Oh man. This is an interesting read. I’m a Chipotle employee in the DFW area, and have some pride in taking care of the meat producers, but the tomatoes are overlooked.

  2. You have to have a situation that is mutually beneficial for all parties in any business arrangement. Too often we see large consortiums exploiting their suppliers and beating them down on price to the extent they can barely survive.

    At the end of the day people will give up on something if it cannot be made to work and then whole industries can suffer, I am not saying they should not have to earn their money but there is a fair level of pay which should be the objective.

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