Chipotle Mexican Grill's public image hinges on its claim to serving "Food With Integrity" -- a campaign that has made it one of the most successful and lucrative chain restaurants in the United States. The "integrity" slogan implies not only high standards for ecological sustainability and animal welfare, but also a deep regard for social justice. You might think that such a company would be at the forefront of efforts to rid the U.S. food system of exploitative working conditions and outright slavery. Yet while Chipotle has instituted bold policies to promote animal welfare in its supply chain as well as to bolster sustainability, it has refused to throw its full weight behind the movement to end forced labor in our agricultural fields.
The situation draws little public attention, but nearly a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, slavery remains a lingering phenomenon in the U.S. Last week in Honolulu, federal prosecutors indicted six people for their role in a massive, multi-state labor trafficking ring. In total, more than 400 farmworkers from Thailand were brought into the U.S. on "guestworker" visas and then held in servitude on farms in 13 states from Hawaii to Florida. Workers' passports were confiscated, and those who protested their abuse were threatened with deportation.
In July, a similar forced labor operation was uncovered in Florida when three farm labor supervisors were indicted for forcing dozens of Haitian nationals to live in wretched conditions and work for little pay. The abuses on the farm likely included sexual assault as one female worker claimed she was raped by her supervisor.
Incredibly, the Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted seven prior agricultural slavery cases in Florida's fields since 1997. These cases have involved well over one thousand farmworkers and resulted in the conviction of 13 supervisors. The enslaved workers harvested tomatoes, oranges, potatoes, cabbage, peas, beans, and other crops for the state's multi-billion dollar fruit and winter vegetable industry.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farmworker organization, is leading the movement to end modern-day agricultural slavery. They train local, state, and federal law enforcement to investigate, uncover, and prosecute existing slavery operations, in addition to working to eliminate the root causes of the problem: farmworkers' structural powerlessness and grinding poverty. Since 2005, the organization has pioneered agreements with nine leading food retailers -- from Whole Foods to Burger King -- to improve farm labor conditions in corporate supply chains. By harnessing the purchasing power of large retail brands, these agreements provide market incentives for Florida tomato growers who respect their workers' human rights and establish market consequences for those who do not. At both the farm and retail levels, the model ensures transparency, verification, and -- crucially -- farmworker participation.
This is where Chipotle Grill comes in. For four years, the company has refused to commit its market influence and symbolic weight to the emerging solution to the abuse and degradation in Florida's agricultural fields. Chipotle has repeatedly spurned the invitation by the CIW to forge an equal partnership and has instead opted for a go-it-alone approach that eschews farmworker participation and transparent oversight. It reads as a public relations response to a human rights crisis.
Chipotle's refusal to work with CIW is particularly puzzling, given the farm worker group's reputation in global human rights circles. For years, this approach has received praise from the world's leading human rights and anti-slavery groups. In June, upon the release of its tenth annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department also weighed in on the group. In a standing room-only ceremony in Washington D.C., Secretary Hillary Clinton recognized the CIW for its persistence and innovations in the fight against human trafficking. It marked the first time a U.S.-based organization received this distinction.
As Clinton explained, ending slavery "is everyone's responsibility." She rebuked "businesses that knowingly profit or exhibit reckless disregard about their supply chains" and called on business leaders to "speak out and act forcefully." The CIW welcomed Mrs. Clinton's emphasis on corporate accountability.
The burrito chain's impressive growth has earned it the respect of both fast-food industry heavyweights and stock market analysts. Its "Food With Integrity" mission not only taps into an increasingly influential niche consumer market, but it also yields low-cost, high-profile publicity, including last year's tie-in to the DVD release of the acclaimed documentary "Food, Inc." and a starring role for CEO Steve Ells on the upcoming NBC reality series "America's Next Great Restaurant."
Yet, where Chipotle's thriving enterprise intersects with the lives of Florida farmworkers, the company's inaction undermines its claim of integrity. By spurning the CIW, Chipotle Mexican Grill exhibits the exact "reckless disregard" for its supply chain that Clinton criticized in the fight against slavery. And that is a very risky proposition for a company whose fortunes are tied to selling consumers "ethically produced" burritos.
Sean Sellers is a Food and Society Fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a board member of Just Harvest USA.