Immigrant Workers Protest Low Wages at Trader Joe’s

Chris Hershberger-Esh of West Philly used to shop at Trader Joe’s—that was until he heard about the company’s refusal to sign an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, he says. Hershberger-Esh and other protesters were outside the grocery store at 2121 Market St. yesterday to notify customers of the low wages paid to tomato pickers in Florida.

Making a stop in Philly last night during its two-week northeast campaign, the CIW, a community group of mostly immigrant workers in low-paying jobs throughout Florida, hopes to have the company agree to pay 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes that would go directly to workers.

It’s a “fair food” agreement that’s been made by nine other large corporations, such as McDonald’s, Subway and Whole Foods Market, according to the CIW.

Brigitte Gynther, a member of the Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, says tomato pickers in Florida earn about 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked. “In order to reach minimum wage for a typical 10-hour a day, you would have to pick over about 150 buckets,” she says. “That’s about one bucket every four minutes, without stopping.”

Paying one cent more for every pound picked, she says, could give the workers about a 70 percent wage increase. But even then, the pay isn’t ideal.

“The rate that they get per bucket has been virtually stagnant since 1980, and in real terms they get paid half as much today as they did,” Gynther says.

Through the Spanish-to-English translation of Gynther, Wilson Perez (above), a tomato picker from Immokalee, says the workers usually wake up around 4 a.m. and don’t actually start picking the tomatoes until about 10 a.m.—after looking for work and waiting for the fields to dry.

“Historically, we face many problems in the field where the bosses will yell at us for not working fast enough or necessarily allows us to have sufficient water or to rest if we’re getting hot,” Perez says. “Typically, if you’re being abused and you report it, your supervisor will just tell you not to come to work tomorrow.”

That’s why, Gynther says, in addition to asking companies to agree to pay the extra penny, the campaign is trying to get Trader Joe’s to agree to a code of conduct that would require the company to cease purchases from farms found to have cases of modern-day slavery take place.

“There’s actually been over 1,200 workers freed from slavery in Florida in recent years, and those cases have been federally prosecuted in court,” Gynther says. “In the most extreme cases, workers have been held against their wills in modern-day slavery rings.”

However, Trader Joe’s, in a notice distributed to customers dated May 2011, contests many of the points of the proposed agreement, calling it “overreaching, ambiguous and improper.”

The notice claims that the agreement provided by the CIW includes demands that would entitle the CIW to force the company to terminate any vendor or supplier upon a written notice and to breach a confidentiality agreement with the sole judgment of the coalition. Additionally, the company says it has no way to determine if such payment is “actually getting to the individual.”

In response to the company’s notice, CIW distributed a point-by-point breakdown, arguing the statements. For example, the CIW claims its power to have to the company terminate a vendor or supplier would be based on reports that a grower is not in compliance with the code—or, as Gynther notes, is found to be the site of a case of slavery.

Management at the Center City branch declined to comment, referring PhillyNow to the Trader Joe’s website for the corporate stance on the issue.

Not all customers leaving the store are thoroughly convinced by the campaign’s efforts.

After reading the material given to her by the CIW and by Trader Joe’s, Center City Resident Linda Forman says she doesn’t think it’s “some cut and dry issue.” She says she’ll still be shopping at the store.

“It seems as if the situation involves more than just paying the workers and extra cent, that there’s a lot of language in there that’s overreaching and doesn’t make sense—and that’s why an agreement can’t be made,” Forman says.

But, until Trader Joe’s makes the agreement, former customer Hershberher-Esh says he’ll be going elsewhere for his food. There are farmers markets, he says, and there’s always Whole Foods.

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