I say Tomahto, you say exploitation.

From the Huffington Post.

What’s the quickest way to get thrown out of a Publix supermarket? Is it a) to run naked through the aisles, b) to point and yell ‘horsemeat!’ at the deli counter or c) to query the manager about whether workers picking tomatoes are treated as well as she’d like. In my case, it was option c). As soon as I broached the question, I was told to leave immediately or security would be called. I was swiftly ushered out.

I wondered whether, perhaps, I’d committed a faux-pas. I speak English with a British accent, and feared that ‘tom-ah-to’ might mean something horrible and offensive in Florida. Further investigation suggests that I’d have been kicked to the curb whether I’d said tomahto or tomayto. There are some things one just isn’t allowed to do in a Publix supermarket. Asking politely about tomato farmworker justice is one of them.

Yet there’s good reason to wonder. Farmworkers have long faced brutal working conditions. Rampant violations of minimum wage laws, below-poverty annual incomes, pesticide exposure, sexual harassment, long days without overtime pay, and retaliation for reporting abuses aren’t just plot points from a Steinbeck novel. They’re a common part of agricultural labor today.

Agricultural and food corporations have successfully lobbied for farmworkers to be stripped of the workplace laws that protect most other Americans, and there’s little enforcement of the few legal protections that farmworkers are meant to enjoy. The result has led to actual cases of ‘modern-day slavery’ in which farmworkers have been threatened, chained, beaten, and held against their will in debt bondage.

There is, however, change in the fields. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is an internationally renowned farmworker organization based in SW Florida — where most of the winter U.S. tomato crop is harvested. They’ve worked with some of Florida’s growers to develop a ‘Fair Food Program.’ Workers and growers collaborate, under the eyes of third-party monitors, to make sure that rights for everything from overtime to bathroom breaks are respected. Buyers reward those growers who uphold the rights with business and withhold business from the growers who fail to.

Sound like some hippie plot? Hardly. Currently, 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry and 11 major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Subway, and Whole Foods, are currently part of the Fair Food Program. Few would consider McDonald’s a refuge for the great unwashed.

Publix’s polished advertisements laud their deep concern for their community. But if you’re a Floridian who picks tomatoes for a living, you’re clearly not part of that community. And if you’re a customer wanting to ask about this, it seems Publix don’t want you around either.

Yet here’s the irony. The Fair Food Program is all about building community. It enshrines the rights of farmworkers never before seen in the agricultural industry in partnership with buyers and grower.

Publix refuses to join the program, claiming that the Fair Food Program is a “labor dispute” and that the company will not get involved. Yet the Fair Food Program is a growing partnership that brings together various levels of the supply chain to overturn decades of sub-poverty wages and abuses that were, until recently, the norm. In fact, the Washington Post recently dubbed the Fair Food Program, “one of the great human rights success stories of our day.”

Why then does Publix still refuse to join some of the leading food retailers in making life better for the worst paid people in America? Publix spokesperson Dwaine Stevens provided a surprisingly frank answerafter a protest at a Publix in Alabama saying, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business”

In other words, Publix maintains the ability to buy from farms even if human rights abuses are rampant, no questions asked. It appears, the Publix solution to human rights abuses is to plug their fingers firmly in their ears. Workers rights will come second to a cheaper tomato, or more accurately, are not part of the equation at all.

Since they couldn’t ask for justice inside a Publix, 1,500 people arrived in Lakeland, home of Publix corporate headquarters, after a 200 mile march through Florida this weekend. Farmworkers like the CIW’s Gerardo Reyes will be there to insist that “though we are indeed poor, we too are human beings and we deserve respect and dignity.”

They weren’t asking for special treatment. They’re only asking to be treated like human beings. And surely that deserves our support. So, please, voice out your support when you next visit a Publix. And, take it from me, you can say tomahtoes or tomaytoes. Either way.

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