Who’s afraid of the supermarket gods? – interview with Sanjay Rawal, director of the film ‘Food Chains’

19 December 2014

Fairfood has recently launched a ‘Living Wage’ campaign to highlight the low wages paid to workers throughout the food sector. Most supermarkets now have a code of conduct to ensure workers in their supply chain are paid a fair wage. Supermarkets earn $4 trillion globally and have tremendous power over the agricultural system and food supply chains. However, their codes of conduct are often not enforced and Fairfood has, for example, exposed the poverty wages paid to tomato workers in a report about practices in the Moroccan tomato sector.

One inspiring example of how workers themselves can fight for their rights is the case of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), who have radically transformed agriculture in the American state of Florida through their ‘Fair Food Program’, a revolutionary partnership between the CIW, Florida tomato farmers and a few large supermarkets. They have peacefully protested requesting a penny more per pound of tomatoes to raise the wages of tomato workers. A number of large chains, such as Walmart and Whole Foods have signed up to the programme raising millions for workers, and the CIW have also battled to end other problems in the sector, such as forced labour and sexual harassment. Fairfood has used their tactics as a model for training on campaigning, which it has offered to workers as part of its Workers Empowerment (WE) project.

Box 1 vers 2 Food Chain

Food Chains, a new documentary by Sanjay Rawal (and executive produced by Hollywood actress/activist Eva Longoria and journalist/author Eric Schlosser) shines a light on the inspiring example set by the CIW. In this interview, Sanjay Rawal gives more information about his impassioned film and explains how the CIW have laid down a blueprint for workers, supermarkets and consumers to work together to create a fairer food system.

Your film places a lot of emphasis on the power of supermarkets, Walmart’s food division alone, for example, makes $311bn per year, twice as much as Apple. Are corporations more powerful than governments and how can we curb their dominance?

Food is really transnational and food companies operate around the world. These corporations have a lot of power and significantly more freedom than governments. Laws haven’t kept up with globalisation.

There were a number of trafficking or modern day slavery cases successfully prosecuted by the US government in southern Florida’s tomato fields in the 2000’s. However, not a single farmer or supermarket was held accountable. The people that got in trouble were the labour contractors or the lower-level farm managers.

The consumer can be very powerful in curbing corporate abuses. I am not suggesting some type of Marxist revisionism. What I am suggesting is that those of us, 99.9% of us, who regularly spend money at supermarkets learn to do so in a more conscious manner.

Box 2 Food chains

The CIW’s ‘Fair Food Program’ has had dazzling success, generating $15m for workers through the ‘penny a pound policy’, getting companies such as Taco Bell and Walmart on board, and ending slavery and sexual harassment in Florida’s agricultural sector. What’s the secret to their success?

The secret is creating a market consequence within the supply chain. The CIW realised that codes of conduct are useless unless there is an enforcement mechanism and an incentive for people down the supply chain to do the right thing. In the absence of a multimillion-dollar system with inspectors and auditors, the CIW came up with the idea of having supermarkets and fast food restaurants sign up to a code of conduct, banning transgressors from their supply chains. That means if anyone on a farm is found to have committed a violation, the farm itself is no longer allowed to sell to these supermarkets. In the case of the Florida tomato industry, they would no longer be allowed to sell to twelve of the largest tomato buyers in the world. That has created a system on farms where workers’ voices are absolutely critical. Farms now realise that they need to prevent problems. If problems arise and become too advanced, they lose their revenue streams.

The CIW have created a system with workers and farmers to ensure three things. Firstly, workers are trained right on farm property regarding their rights (and they’re paid by the farms for this training time). Secondly, there is a way for workers to complain without fear of retribution. Finally, justice is swift if those complaints are valid. That has radically transformed the tomato industry in Florida from what was once one of the most oppressive agriculture sectors in America to one of the most progressive now.

You’ve stated the CIW model should and could be replicated by other workers. How can this be done?

Let’s use the garment industry as an example. There is a group in Washington DC called the Worker Rights Consortium. They were the ones advocating for supply chain transparency in Bangladesh after the disasters there. They were inspired by the CIW’s ‘Fair Food Program’ as a model and got H&M and Zara to sign up. They added a surcharge for goods that is transferred into worker wages and they also created an enforceable code of conduct. Violations mean low-level manufacturers are banned from being able to sell to H&M and Zara. So the CIW programme is now being replicated on a large scale in the garment industry.

Box 5 Food Chains

You’ve stated ‘true change in supply chains can never come from the top. The voice of workers need to drive change’. In an increasingly neoliberal political climate where unions have been decimated, how can they achieve this, especially in countries where freedom of association is severely curtailed?

The CIW are not a union, they don’t collect dues, there is no money flowing through them at all. They’re an association, a collective of workers who advocate together for change within their system. It’s a very unique model.

So is this a new kind of model to get past all the restrictions governments are trying to place on unions?

It’s one way. There is a company called Bon Appetite Management Company (BAMCO), a very large food service company in the United States, and they pride themselves on doing things the proper way. They spent years looking for worker-led programmes that they could support. However, there just aren’t enough. Why? Because workers haven’t been given the freedom, both politically and economically, to organise.

We, as consumers, need to encourage and purchase from the very few worker-driven programmes that exist within food manufacturing and harvesting.

Barry Estabrook states in ‘Tomatoland’ that soil in Florida is largely unfertile and needs to be pumped with fertilizers and drenched in pesticides. How do we balance the human aspect of labour rights and living wages with the environmental toll?

For so long, we’ve only looked at food from an environmental perspective. I for one would rather have a tomato grown under the worst environmental conditions, if all the workers were treated like human beings. There is such a gap between environmental consciousness and labour consciousness. I think that the workers deserve to have their time in the spotlight. That said, approximately 97% of the produce that we consume in North America comes through gigantic industrialised farming systems. And that is not going to change overnight and most of the people who are advocating organic and local produce shop at places where they can afford that 60-100% premium. It’s important to remember that in the United States, one out of every three grocery dollars goes through Walmart. This idea of environmental protection versus workers’ rights is largely a question of class, more than anything else.

Even if stuff is grown in the most beautiful Norwegian country, there’s still going to be people that pick that food. If we look at the organic labels, none of that guarantees that the workers were treated well.

Box 8 Food chains

Modern day slavery has been abolished in Florida. Could you describe worst cases you encountered?

What was once dubbed as ‘ground zero’ for modern day slavery by the US government, that is to say the tomato fields of Florida, has now been transformed. There have been no cases of human trafficking in the last five years. We came across the case of Giovanni and Cesar Navarrete in our movie. They lured poor workers in with promises of housing and food and ended up driving them into false debt. When those workers tried to escape they were beaten, chained up and locked in a trailer at night for more than a year, and forced to work in the fields during the daytime.

More than twelve hundred workers were freed from forced labour within a five to seven year period alone just in southern Florida. It was a huge issue and it is an issue in other areas of the United States. But the amazing thing is that just by instituting market consequences, this horrific system has been radically transformed.

In your documentary, the supermarket chain Publix refuse to talk to the CIW and put the blame on actors lower down the supply chain saying it’s not their responsibility. How do we stop this?

We’re still on the eve of this new millennium and we can see that corporations have taken positive steps forward in terms of labour relations. The entire system is changing with the incredible transparency being demanded in supply chains and labour violations coming to light, almost on a monthly basis. There’s going to come a time when people realise that corporations not only have the responsibility, but also the ability to do business in a moral, ethical way. After all, corporations are made up of individuals and people we could consider our neighbours.

In terms of the Publix example, the next phase of the CIW fight is to take their message to employees of Publix, because sometimes companies only change from within. Publix has no shareholders. No amount of external pressure is going to change the way they work. It’s that internal pressure that will be important.

That was the most exciting thing about Walmart signing the Fair Food Program. The CIW never launched a public campaign against Walmart. They ended up signing because a few people in leadership positions wanted Walmart to sign.

Box 7 Food Chains

Your film shows how supply chains have become largely invisible. Estabrook notes ‘The entire supermarket business goes out of its way so that you are not reminded of where your food came from’. Is this the case or is it also down to consumer apathy?

I was talking with a prominent chef from Boston recently, Jose Duarte, who has a farm-to-table restaurant, and he said that not once in the last six years has anyone asked him a question about labour.

That’s the next phase for consumers. To begin asking if the people that produced the food we consume are paid a living wage. Supply chains in corporations are, in a sense, agnostic. They’re going to react to market questions and market pressure. If people begin by asking these simple questions, in a non-antagonistic way, the answers will be developed. Movements never began with answers. They always began with questions.

I would suggest that people begin asking any purveyor of food at the top of the supply chain, from a local restaurant to a gigantic fast food chain or supermarket, about the wages that the people who provided the food were paid. Once we start asking those questions, the answers will be forthcoming. Supply chains scan pivot on a dime. They’re set up for maximising profit and anytime profit is threatened those supply chains change.

Box 9 Food chains

Erik Schlosser states ’if a handful of companies decided that they wanted to eliminate poverty and exploitation among farmworkers, it could happen very, very quickly’. If the answer is so simple, why isn’t it happening?

We did a rough calculation that if an American family of four were to pay a subsidy each year to double the wages of every farmworker in the United States, they would only have to spend about $68 extra per family per year for their food purchases. That $68 is nothing to most families of four spread out over a year.

However, that represents hundreds of millions of dollars of profit for a corporation. Corporations aren’t going to release profits back into the system voluntarily. But it doesn’t take a large mass of consumers to supply a critical amount of pressure. We don’t need 330 million American all taking to the streets.. We might only need a few thousand. That’s what we’ve seen cause change in the past.

Do you feel optimistic that consumers and workers can fight back and bring about change?

I’m not necessarily optimistic or pessimistic. I feel that things have to change. We have no choice. I think that the tremendous amount of pressure that’s building, and that’s going to build, is going to force a lot of change in a very short amount of time.