Toss a Tomato at Fair-Trade Label
Date of publication: February 22, 2006
Source: Palm Beach Post
By Todd Howland
Special to The Palm Beach Post
In The Post's article titled "First step taken toward tomato certification" on Feb. 4, Ray Gilmer, spokesman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, made a surprisingly bold claim for the growers' newly minted program called SAFE (Socially Accountable Farm Employers).
Mr. Gilmer said, "It (SAFE) provides a seal of approval, kind of like fair-trade coffee, that says these tomatoes or (this) lettuce are grown, produced and harvested with labor that is treated fairly, paid fairly and has access to safety equipment."
Mr. Gilmer's comparison of SAFE-certified tomatoes to fair-trade coffee was not made lightly. The fair-trade market is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the food industry. The fair-trade label gives products access to this lucrative, stable market and gives producers who meet its rigorous standards for fair wages and working conditions a competitive advantage over those who don't qualify.
Florida growers, meanwhile, long have been under a cost-price squeeze, caught between rising input costs, on the one hand, and falling prices for their products — thanks to ever-larger, more powerful buyers — on the other. Further, growers are facing strong consumer pressure to reform labor practices as a result of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' growing campaign for fair labor standards, which made national news with its victory in the Taco Bell boycott. Facing an uncertain future, Florida tomato producers would like nothing more than the security afforded by a fair-trade label.
But while the fair-trade brand is indeed a powerful tool, it is effective only if backed up by the truth, and the truth of farmworker conditions in this state is that they are anything but fair.
Truth is, there is a human rights crisis in Florida's fields today.
Farmworkers pick tomatoes from dawn to dusk for sub-poverty wages at a piece rate that hasn't changed significantly in nearly 30 years. Farm employers have made stagnant wages the key to their survival, or, as FFVA member John Alger put it to USA Today in January 2004: "To have a sustainable, low-cost labor force is crucial to us."
Farmworkers do this grueling, dangerous work with no overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation or pension, and no right to organize. The rash of modern-day slavery cases that have emerged only underscores the severity of this human rights crisis. The Post and many other respected Florida newspapers have done an admirable job of documenting these shameful conditions.
So, before we break out the champagne to toast Florida's new fair-trade tomatoes, it might be a good idea to take a closer look behind the SAFE "seal of approval."
The Fair Trade Labeling Organization sets the standards for products that claim the Fair Trade label. The FLO's standards are unambiguous, and foremost among them are guarantees of a living wage, overtime pay for overtime work and protection of workers' freedom of association, including the right to organize and negotiate.
What do SAFE standards say about these three fundamental labor rights?
Nothing. No living wage. No right to overtime pay. No freedom of association.
SAFE's supporters say that its standards require growers to comply with all laws. That sounds fair enough, until you consider that existing laws exclude employers from paying overtime and allow them to fire workers if they try to organize or ask for a raise.
Interestingly, the FLO accounts for situations where governments deny workers their rights, since many of the products that carry the Fair Trade label are produced in countries where rights are suspect.
What does SAFE say about higher internationally recognized labor standards? Nothing. So, whatever they may be, SAFE standards are nothing "like fair-trade coffee."
Before trying to paste a fair-trade label over the stain of sweatshops and slavery on their products, Florida growers need to face the facts:
Not only are there no truly "fair" producers in the state today; SAFE doesn't even come close to setting standards that could help willing growers move toward genuine fair-trade certification.
Social responsibility can't be achieved on the cheap. There's nothing wrong with the idea of setting higher labor standards and certifying the growers who rise to those standards. But at a minimum, that means dealing with the urgent need for a wage increase for Florida's farmworkers — an increase to be paid by the buyers and passed on to the workers, as is the case in the CIW's agreement with Taco Bell — and working with the CIW to design truly humane workplace standards.
Credibility can be born only of a genuine partnership among buyers, growers and labor.
The fair-trade label isn't free, and if you hope to enjoy its benefits — a stable, sustainable market being chief among them — you've got to pay the price. Socially conscious consumers will accept no imitations.
Fool's gold shines, but it doesn't fool anyone for long.
Todd Howland is the director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.