This Op-Ed appeared in the Pro & Con section of the March 26, 2013 edition of the Florida Times-Union. The Pro Point of View is represented by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and the Con Point of View is represented by Publix. A digital version of this Op-Ed for Florida Times-Union subscribers can be found here.
More than fifty years ago, Edward R. Murrow presented the ground-breaking documentary “Harvest of Shame” on “CBS Reports.” Murrow detailed troubling conditions that migrant laborers in Florida faced. He concluded: “The migrants have no lobby… They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.” Fifty years later, these conditions are still very real.
I recently returned from a rabbinic delegation with T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to the tomato fields of Immakolee. I learned of the work of the Coalition of Immakolee Workers, launched twenty years ago by a group of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian migrant workers to stand up for their rights. These tomato pickers head out into the fields before dawn and they do not return until dusk.
They pick bucket after bucket full of tomatoes, each bucket weighing thirty-two pounds. This costs consumes eighty-one dollars in the supermarket, but the migrant worker only receives fifty cents per bucket.
A decade ago, the coalition launched the Fair Food Program, which encourages those corporations that purchase these tomatoes – notably restaurants and supermarkets – to commit to only buying tomatoes from growers that take responsibility for the human rights abuses in the fields. The campaign asks corporations to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes in order to improve conditions and wages. Such a change guarantees fieldworkers can earn minimum wage. Fast food chains like Subway, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King have signed on to this program, as have supermarkets like Whole Foods.
Publix, the largest supermarket chain in the state, was approached about joining the Fair Food Program years ago. Publix has refused to even sit down and meet with the coalition. This is a human dignity issue. In an effort to offer the consumer the lowest of prices, Publix is willing to accept the exploitative practices in Florida’s tomato fields.
If Publix really were dedicated to dignity and were responsible citizens as its mission statement suggests, then Publix would join the Fair Food Program.
Jewish communities worldwide are celebrating the Festival of Passover. We celebrate the Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Coalition of Immakolee Workers recently finished their own exodus, marching for rights, respect, and fair food on a fifteen-day, 200-mile journey from Fort Myers (near Immakolee) to the Publix Headquarters in Lakeland.
If we celebrate the Exodus narrative in our scripture, then we must ensure that such freedom is a reality for all those in our midst, including and especially the tomato pickers of Immakolee, because I don’t know about you, but I prefer to buy slavery-free tomatoes.
Publix, wouldn’t you prefer to sell slavery-free tomatoes as well?
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky