Protesters Ask Chipotle to Put its Money Where the Burrito Goes

The hometown fast food joint, Chipotle Mexican Grill, has built a reputation for preferring naturally raised pork purchased from family farms. Activists would like to see the company take a similar interest in improving the well-being of farmworkers in its supply chain.A local coalition formed in support of Florida farmworkers is turning up the heat on Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill to live up to its slogan of “food with integrity” by agreeing to pay tomato pickers an extra penny per pound.

Local groups allied with a farmworker alliance based in Immokalee, Fla., staged a protest Saturday outside the Chipotle restaurant on 16th and Blake streets, just blocks from the company headquarters. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has targeted fast-food chains in its quest to raise wages and improve working conditions for migrant farm laborers who harvest tomatoes in south Florida.

“We think ‘food with integrity’ is a great idea,” said Jordan Garcia, of Coloradoans for Immigrant Rights, a member organization of the Denver Fair Food Committee. “The reason we have chosen Chipotle is because they have said very clearly that they believe in honest food.”

Chipotle, which at one point purchased about 20 percent of its tomato supply from Florida for 12 weeks a year, has responded to the CIW claims of farmworker abuse by ceasing to buy Florida tomatoes. But that’s not acceptable for those who want to see the company incorporate the fight against farmworker exploitation into its mission of “food with integrity.”

“We’re asking Chipotle to take a stand,” said Seth Donovan of Prax(us), an anti-human trafficking organization in Denver and ally of the CIW. “Fast-food chains have such huge buying power, they are in a position to pressure farmers to raise wages and protect workers.”

The CIW negotiated hard-fought penny-per-pound deals with McDonald’s Corp., and Taco Bell owner Yum Brands, Inc. – agreements that, if adopted industrywide, would essentially double wages for farmworkers. But those deals are in danger of collapsing under pressure from Miami-based Burger King, which has refused to sign on, and a tomato growers group that is threatening $100,000 fines against any farmer that participates. A spokesman for the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange called the penny-per-pound deals “un-American” because they allowed a third party to set wages. The growers also claim the deals are in violation of anti-trust laws but have so far offered no specifics.

Given the precarious future of these deals, Colorado organizers say it’s more important than ever that Chipotle, with its focus on humanely raised livestock and organic produce, become an industry leader in the struggle to improve the lives of farmworkers. Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold did not return repeated calls for comment. In a short e-mail Arnold wrote, “We certainly respect their right to protest, but we don’t buy any Florida tomatoes at all. We are reviewing practices among Florida tomato growers, but don’t have any plans in place to begin buying Florida tomatoes.” Arnold did not specify where Chipotle purchases its tomatoes. Florida supplies roughly 80 percent of the nation’s fresh tomatoes between November and February.

Farmworker advocates say Chipotle’s move does nothing to address the problem as the sub-poverty wages and abuse suffered by Florida pickers are well-documented and endemic throughout the tomato growing industry.

Migrant laborers – many of them illegal immigrants – have long been among the nation’s most impoverished and most exploited workers. Over the past 10 years, the Justice Department has prosecuted six cases of farmworker slavery in Florida. There, the backbreaking job of harvesting tomatoes takes place in hot, pesticide-laced fields, where the workers must stoop to pick and haul tomatoes for 10 to 12 hours a day. They earn a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket. That can mean up to $10 an hour for those who can fill more than 200 buckets a day – 6,400 pounds of tomatoes. But the work is not guaranteed, and tomato pickers get no health insurance and receive no overtime pay.

“Chipotle preaches ‘food with integrity,’ but if they’re not going to step up and protect the rights of human beings, I don’t see much integrity in that at all,” said Scott Kwasny, executive director of Colorado Jobs with Justice. His comment was in reference to Chipotle’s well-publicized efforts to buy all its pork and some of its chicken and beef from “free range” farms, seen as more humane, where the animals are allowed to roam rather than kept in small cages.

Sarah Gill, a Denver resident who came out for Saturday’s protest downtown, also said she’d like to see Chipotle’s practices fall in line with its rhetoric.

“If you say you care, I want to hold you accountable.”

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Kate Bernuth

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