If you walk in to any of the more than 1,200 Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in the United States, you will find it hard to miss Chipotle’s slogan “Food with Integrity.” Over the last few years, Chipotle has worked hard to brand themselves as a socially responsible and sustainable fast food restaurant. On their website they promise to provide their customers with only the “very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers.” Through video restaurant advertisements on their website, Chipotle has claimed their ingredients come from wide open spaces, towering grass lands, red barn houses and happy animals. For a moment it seems like a memory from our childhood; like a picture taken at “Old MacDonald’s farm.”
Chipotle’s website stresses and reiterates hormone and antibiotic free meat, organic as well as locally sourced produce — but it’s not just animals and the environment that Chipotle cares about, there’s a whole page dedicated to people. The page reads: “It’s important that every worker is treated with dignity and respect. As a result, we have several policies in place designed to ensure that the products we use at Chipotle are grown, made, and shipped without exploiting people.”
And it is exactly this claim that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) takes issue with.
Founded in the early 1990s by tomato farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., the CIW has launched campaigns to stop modern day slavery, worker abuse and improve working conditions. Over the last decade, the CIW has focused its organizing efforts around corporations with the biggest influence on the tomato supply chain. The CIW is able to change the working conditions of workers by entering into Fair Food Agreements with corporations.
The Fair Food Agreements force corporations to buy tomatoes from farms that participate in the Fair Food Program, which consists of several elements including wage requirements, a code of conduct, a process for complaint resolution, on hand health and safety volunteers, routine audits, revised harvesting operations including shad structures, water brakes, and a stop to the practice of over filling buckets. Most farm workers are paid by the bucket, not by the hour — in most cases this practice denied workers up to 10 percent of their pay. The program also includes worker-to-worker education sessions to inform farm workers of their rights.
The CIW argued that big tomato buyers, like fast food restaurants and supermarkets, demanded lower and lower prices, and thus created a downward pressure on wages and working conditions. After four years of boycotts and growing consumer pressure, Taco Bell was the first corporation to sign a Fair Food Agreement. Since then, nine more major American corporations have signed a Fair Food Agreement including McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, leaving Chipotle out of the loop.
In all this, Chipotle has decided to approach the issue by creating their own plan of “corporate social responsibility” — one that leaves farm workers out of the negotiation table. Chipotle has claimed that they buy only from farms that have signed on to the Fair Food Program, but none of this can be verified without Chipotle first signing a Fair Food Agreement and opening its books for independent auditors (like the Fair Food Standards Council FFSC).
One of Chipotle’s many efforts to brand itself as a socially responsible corporation will be taking form as a daylong festival, called Cultivate, in City Park on Oct. 6 in Chipotle’s hometown of Denver, Colo.
“You can’t have food with integrity without the involvement of farm workers,” said CIW member Oscar Otzoy.
This is why the CIW has been meeting with allies like Denver Fair Food, and presenting at churches, community organizations, and universities to garner support in the weeks before the festival and apply consumer pressure to Chipotle. The CIW is planning its own daylong event on Oct. 6th outside of the Cultivate grounds.
“As workers, we’ll keep fighting until [Chipotle] understands that the participation of workers is important … it doesn’t matter if we have to wait more time — the question is not how long we will have to wait, but how long will it take Chipotle to understand and do the right thing” said Otzoy.
People: Oscar Otzoy