Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Admit you have a problem, Steve."

It is not a shock that Chipotle CEO Steve Ells has not responded to, much less accepted, the "Chipotle Challenge." When long-time ally of the CIW Sean Sellers dared Ells to a head-to-head debate to publicly defend his weak excuses for refusing to join in agreement with the CIW, I suspected that Ells would not have the integrity to stand behind his words and would opt instead for ignoring Sean.

Fortunately, at least one of Chipotle's most loyal customers doesn't want to let Ells hide from his problems. In an excellent post titled "Chipotle Doesn't Support Florida's Tomato Pickers? Say it ain't so, Steve." from the Simple Good and Tasty blog, Shari Danielson - a consumer who "trully cares" about the chain - encourages us to:

"Try to imagine a situation in which someone whom you deeply care about -- a friend, a family member, a co-worker -- is doing something wrong and totally out of character, say cheating on his wife, gambling away his children's college funds, stealing from his employer. Now, imagine how you would react to his bad behavior. Chances are, if you really care about this person, you wouldn’t ignore it; you would confront him about it, right? You would probably tell him how much he means to you, and that you don’t want to see him or the people in his life get hurt as a result of his actions. Maybe you would even organize an intervention."

She then explains, "I feel this way about Chipotle now." She goes on to summarize Sean Sellers' documentation of Chipotle's "silence, evasion and cyncial spin" in the face of farmworkers' just demands.

She ends with these tough questions and strong advise for Ells:

"So, my first question to Steve Ells would simply be, why?

"Question #2 would be this: Are you willing to tarnish the reputation of your company over this seemingly no-brainer issue? How could you possible object to doing everything you can to improve the plight of poor and powerless farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields? (That would be question #3.)

"And, finally, do you know how much you are hurting the people who care about you, who have held you in such high esteem, who depend on you to provide inexpensive, convenient, delicious, nutritious and sustainably sourced food that appeals to practically everyone?

"Admit you have a problem, Steve. That’s the first step. Now solve it. Pledge your full and unconditional support to CIW and Florida’s tomato pickers. Do it for them. Do it for your customers. Do it for your investors. Do it for your friends and family. Do it, because, as you say on your website, you can always 'do better.' Prove it. Thank you."

I can't claim to share Shari's high opinion of Chipotle. I've had too much experience with Chipotle to not conclude that "Food With Integrity" is more a marketing ploy intended to exploit our dreams of a fair and sustainable food system than a true desire to "do better." Steve, it can't be too long 'til your most loyal customers start to come to the same conclusions. If you want to "do better," than the task in front of you is simple: "Prove it. Thank you."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mistreatment of Range Workers in Colorado

Florida of course is not the only state where agricultural workers face brutal exploitation and social marginalization. Right here in Colorado, there is no doubt poverty wages, harsh living and working conditions, and gross imbalances of power which provide fetile ground for abuse to flourish for workers in the state's agricultural industry.

The great folks at Colorado Legal Service's Migrant Farmworkers Division just issued an eye-opening report about the plight of Colorado's range workers - most of whom are from Peru but also from countries such as Nepal. Here's a brief write up about the report:

A report being released today found that more than 80 percent of a surveyed group of Colorado's sheep, goat and cattle herders are not permitted to leave their ranches, according to Colorado Legal Services.

Much of the treatment of herders is entirely legal due to the exclusion of herders from many of the federal regulations that govern the H-2A program. Sheepherders in Colorado receive a standard wage of $750 per month, as little as $2-3 per hour, regardless of hours worked, and are required by their contracts to be on-call 24 hours per day. Their housing is not required to have electricity, running water and toilets.

The report, conducted by legal services' Migrant Farm Worker Division over 2 years, surveyed 93 herders, essentially a third of Colorado's range workers.

Herders typically come to Colorado as part of the H-2A program, a federal program which allows agricultural employers to import temporary workers. The program has long been rife with labor abuses. *Read the CIW's critical analysis of "guest worker" programs here.* That said, almost all other workers in the H-2A program receive better pay, have better living and working conditions, and enjoy more personal freedom than herders do.

"Many herders have expressed concern over the past several years about the harsh conditions under which they live and work," said Jennifer J. Lee, managing attorney of the division and report co-author. "This survey attempted to quantify these concerns to show how prevalent they are."

Many of the herders surveyed expressed concerns about sub-minimum wage pay, long hours, poor living conditions, mistreatment by their bosses and feelings of isolation, according to the report.

Among the most striking statistics revealed by the report:

· Almost three quarters of the herders reported having zero days off over the course of a year.
· Approximately 35 percent were paid less than once a month.
· 85 percent were not allowed to have visitors who were not ranch employees.
· Roughly 70 percent reported never having access to a functioning toilet.
· 85 percent were never permitted to engage in social activities.
· Almost 50 percent reported not having the opportunity or ability to read their employment contracts.

"This report shows that there must be a change in the way herders in Colorado are treated," Lee said. "Herders come a long way from their home countries to work in our state, and they deserve decent wages and living conditions and more control over their own lives."

You can read the full report at There are also some interesting articles to come out about the report:
Advocates push change in working conditions for isolated immigrant sheepherders
Poor treatment of immigrant sheep herders alleged
Unsurprisingly, the ranchers quoted in the articles have no shortage of excuses and explanations to justify the exploitation of their employees. Say what they will, an industry whose survival depends on excluding already desperately poor people from basic economic, social and labor rights, has got to rethink its business model.

You can see for yourself the experiences of Colorado range workers by watching the videos at this link. We'll leave you with this one by Grand Junction Alternative Media:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Season of Hope

Happy New Year to all! We wanted to share this new year's message from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers with you which beautifully captures how their long, hard struggle is flourishing and the fruits of justice are ripening.

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells has still not responded to the "Chipotle Challenge," apparently lacking the integrity to defend in public debate his skewed perceptions about and cynical response to the Campaign for Fair food. We hope he takes a moment to read this message.

A season of hope...

Holidays perfect time for a news round-up with a theme of hope for the new year!

A dozen years ago -- shortly before Christmas, 1997 -- a small group of farmworkers in Immokalee began a 30-day hunger strike that would forever transform the struggle for justice in this country's fields. Their excruciating month-long fast cast an unblinking light on the cruel reality facing tomato pickers -- slipping sub-poverty wages, rampant wage theft, and even violent modern-day slavery rings. But more than that, it also exposed the Florida tomato industry’s deeply-rooted, unregenerate resistance to dialogue with farmworkers and to improving farm labor wages and conditions.

In short, the CIW's month-long hunger strike made the case for the Campaign for Fair Food that was to come, for the urgent need for intervention by the multi-billion dollar corporations that purchase Florida tomatoes to demand more modern, more humane conditions in the fields where their tomatoes are grown and picked.

Over the next twelve years, the Campaign for Fair Food grew into a national movement, and the Florida tomato industry continued its stubborn resistance to progress. Even after workers in Immokalee reached landmark agreements with the world's two largest fast-food corporations -- Yum Brands and McDonald's -- to help fund long-needed changes in Florida's tomato fields, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange threatened to fine any tomato grower willing to pass on the additional funds to improve their workers' wages. Yet the Campaign for Fair Food persevered, patiently building a critical mass of food industry leaders pledged to use their power as major tomato buyers to demand that Florida tomato growers help end poverty and abuses in the fields.

And this year, as the direct result of the collaboration of farmworkers and consumers through the Campaign for Fair Food, true transformation has begun: Three Florida tomato growers are now working with the CIW to implement the Fair Food agreements, including a substantial wage increase, a real voice for farmworkers, and a code of conduct for fair conditions in the fields.

Go to the CIW site today,, where you'll find three stories from the end of this year that capture this pivotal moment in the Campaign from different perspectives. If you have a moment, take a look at the stories and, as you do, savor the fact that these changes can be traced -- day by day, battle by battle -- back to the small, storefront office in Immokalee where six workers took on the trillion-dollar food industry by refusing to eat until their demand for justice was heard.

Thanks - and Happy New Year from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers!