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Partnering with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

I’m very happy to announce that Whole Foods Market has signed an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) designed to help improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers. I put together this blog entry to explain the steps we took that led us to make this agreement. Just before Christmas of 2007 I became aware of a slavery indictment in Florida related to a contract harvesting operation and we received some questions about whether any of our Whole Foods Market suppliers were connected to the persons named in the suit. Our suppliers were not connected to the indicted parties in any way, but the story got my attention. Shortly thereafter, a letter from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was forwarded to me, which indicated the CIW was looking for our support in making systemic change for tomato pickers in Florida. In the letter, the CIW outlined their concerns about harsh conditions endured by workers in the tomato industry. We’d been aware of CIW’s activism relative to buyers of conventional sandwich tomatoes but hadn’t been engaged with the CIW ourselves largely because we don’t buy the type of conventional tomatoes that the CIW has traditionally targeted. As readers of this blog know, Whole Foods Market is a mission driven company, and our core values include caring for our communities and our environment. Farm workers and consumers are part of our communities and both groups deserve assurance that our Florida tomatoes aren’t produced under inhumane conditions. Given the December indictments and subsequent customer inquiries, we decided to take a deeper look at Florida. At no time have I had any evidence to indicate that any of our Florida growers/shippers are involved in illegal labor practices. Our produce team has an inspector based in the Southeast who regularly visits farms. He has consistently reported that workers are not working under coercive conditions and that they have free access on and off the farms. To be diligent, we implemented a series of 3rd party farm audits including common social responsibility criteria based upon the following standards:  SA8000, Rainforest Alliance, SCS Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits and Food Alliance. Our criteria include checks for child labor, discrimination, disciplinary practices, working hours, compensation, health and safety, management systems and environmental protection. Concurrent with the 3rd party audits, a small team from Whole Foods Market made trips to Florida, both to meet with CIW members and to make spot inspections at various farms. During this process we found no evidence that our growers/shippers were out of legal compliance. Although we’re confident that our suppliers are operating within Florida law, this process helped us see that Whole Foods Market has an opportunity to proactively engage in improving the situation in Florida by creating incentives to improve conditions for farm workers. We signed an agreement to support the CIW’s “penny-per-pound” approach for tomatoes purchased from Florida, with the goal of passing these additional funds on to the harvesters. We also know that there’s more that can be done. Our Whole Trade Guarantee program is an obvious place to start. The concepts behind the Whole Trade Guarantee include meeting our quality standards, providing fair prices to our producers, ensuring better conditions for workers and caring for the environment. This program has been implemented in other countries and we are excited to have the opportunity to work with the CIW, growers and other groups to create a domestic purchasing program modeled on these concepts. Stay tuned as we work on this in the coming months.

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Holly at Tropic of Mom says …

This is really good to hear. I have driven through Immokalee, where I saw a row of impossibly small houses I assumed were for the workers there. So hearing this is a bit relieving.