Chipotle: Not So Hot for Farmworkers

Chipotle: Not So Hot for Farmworkers

Shona Clarkson Do farmworkers deserve to be treated as human beings? For Chipotle Mexican Grill, the jury is still out.


Shona Clarkson

November 24, 2008

The grim reality of Florida agriculture today–crushing poverty for farmworkers and multiple convictions for slavery–contrasts glaringly with the progressive rhetoric of “Food with Integrity.” This is the slogan used by Chipotle, a burrito chain rapidly settling in university towns across the country, to pitch its supposedly supply-chain-conscious fare. The ugly contradiction has triggered notice by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based group of predominantly Guatemalan, Mexican and Haitian workers in South Florida.

The majority of the CIW’s 2,500-plus members are young people harvesting produce in Florida’s fields. They know the miserable wages and work atmosphere all too well. In fact, the CIW has helped federal officials to investigate and prosecute numerous slavery cases since 1997, resulting in the emancipation of more than 1,500 farmworkers, many of whom have since joined the CIW’s ranks.

Integrity or Misguided Paternalism?

For years, the CIW has publicly called on Chipotle to enact a meaningful code of conduct to protect the rights of farmworkers in its supply chain. While the CIW has secured similar agreements with other fast food giants–among them McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut–Chipotle refuses to act.

Instead, Chipotle LP Director Tim Spong told a CIW delegation last month that his company had “studied the issue and determined… what is best for them.”

Chipotle’s determination that they, rather than Florida farmworkers, know what’s best for tomato pickers was a difficult pill to swallow for CIW who responded by camping out in front of Chipotle’s corporate headquarters. Along with fellow young allies from Boulder and Denver (part of the Student/Farmworker Alliance network), CIW members created a plantón, a sit-in style encampment with a prominent banner that read, “Chipotle: We Are Not Animals. We Have A Voice.”

Campaigns to Change Big Ag

Sadly, Chipotle’s paternalism, and its efforts at ignoring the humanity of those mistreated in its supply chain, are nothing new to CIW. The organization’s 15-year history is punctuated with efforts by farmworkers to demand that those who oppress them recognize their humanity, and afford them the basic rights they deserve. Despite federal laws to protect workers, Florida tomato pickers receive no benefits whatsoever, and their wages have not risen substantially in 30 years.

This past April, the CIW testified before a US Senate committee about how growers, the industry term for farm owners, view farmworkers. The CIW told lawmakers the following story: After a 30-day hunger strike in 1997 staged to demand dialogue with growers about the violence and poverty afflicting Florida’s fields, one grower was asked why growers still–even after a fasting farmworker was forced to admit himself to a hospital for medical care–refused to talk with workers. The grower replied , “Let me explain it to you this way: A tractor does not tell the grower how to run his farm.”

In 2001, the CIW shifted efforts to radically overhaul the agriculture industry. Instead of mobilizing the public to put pressure on tomato growers, they targeted more powerful higher-ups: multinational fast food corporations.

The CIW observed that large restaurant chains exert tremendous influence over the conditions in which their food is produced. They sparked a public campaign focused on compelling fast food corporations to sign codes of conduct that protect farmworkers’ basic rights, including freedom from slavery and violence.

As their Taco Bell campaign unfolded, it emerged that the company had already established a code of conduct to protect the rights of farm animals in its supply chain, yet were actively resisting doing the same for farmworkers. Four years of nationwide student campaigns aimed at ousting Taco Bells from campus contracts greatly aided in forcing the company to act, setting a groundbreaking precedent for the fast food industry.

Farmworkers’ human rights similarly take a backseat to animal rights in Chipotle’s vision of its duties as a “sustainability” leader. Last year, Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells stated, “We decided long ago that we didn’t want Chipotle’s success to be tied to the exploitation of animals, farmers, or the environment.” What may seem an innocent omission–failing to include the exploitation of farmworkers–is thrust into a different context with Chipotle’s recent assertion that “[they] have determined what is best” for farmworkers.

Acting with integrity requires, at a very minimum, treating people with dignity. Unfortunately, Chipotle’s version of sustainability conspicuously overlooks the workers at the heart of the food industry.

Sustainable for All?

If a person who plucked an organic tomato from a vine were in fact enslaved, would the final product be nevertheless deemed “sustainable food”? This may indeed be the case.

John Bowe’s recent book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, exposes modern-day slavery in the US. One case explored is that of Abel Cuello, convicted of enslaving farmworkers near Immokalee in 1999. Bowe points out that Cuello has since gone on to a position at Ag-Mart, an agricultural company that is also a major organic tomato producer.

If farmworkers are paid sub-poverty wages for backbreaking work harvesting heirloom tomatoes that end up on the tables of wealthy, health-conscious consumers, is this food chain “sustainable”?

While some foods are lauded as “sustainable,” they actually reinforce a system that benefits the few while maintaining an abusive, exploitative reality for others. Many in the larger sustainable food movement challenge the exclusion of farmworkers’ human rights from the idea of “sustainability.” Already, Whole Foods, the largest natural and organic foods grocery chain, has been encouraged to sign an agreement with the CIW ensuring higher wages and safer working conditions for tomato pickers.

Mayan Art Versus Mayan Workers

There are other elements in the marketing of health-conscious food that sometimes escape scrutiny, even when they’re staring the customer in the face.

In every Chipotle store across the country, one can find an original sculpture inspired by the artistic style of the ancient Maya, designed by Chipotle’s contracted artist, Bruce Gueswel.

The CIW also displays a deep affection for honoring Mayan culture, but for a different reason. “There is a certain pride in listening to one’s own native music,” says Leonel Pérez, a 21-year-old deejay with the CIW’s community radio station in Immokalee. Over the last tomato season, he has frequently joined others at Radio Conciencia in playing marimba–music of Guatemala’s predominantly Mayan highlands from where he hails–and conversing on air with callers in Mam, the language he grew up speaking.

“Maybe Chipotle is trying to say that the food they sell is the best that exists or full of integrity, but they are confused,” Pérez explained. “Mayan food–like beans and corn–for the Maya is similar to God, and you cannot lack respect for it when you cultivate it. They [Chipotle executives] apparently only have respect for Mayan images and art. They can, in reality, never have respect for the Maya if it does not occur to them to respect the human rights of workers in the fields.”

Fellow deejay Cruz Salucio, 24, shares the sentiment. He, like a huge number of CIW members, also comes from a Mayan community near the Guatemala-Mexico borderlands. Salucio, a native Poptí speaker, routinely reports on issues relevant to the Mayan community in Immokalee as part of his radio show.

When asked about Chipotle’s use of Maya-inspired art to decorate its restaurants, Salucio expresses bewilderment at the corporation’s admiration for his ancestors’ art given their snub to farmworkers’ rights. “Simply put,” he says, “Chipotle paints their restaurants with Mayan culture to attract people’s attention, and to make them know that Chipotle highly regards Mayan culture,” he explained.

He paused and reflected, “But if Chipotle does that, why do they not also respect the rights of the people who work everyday in Florida’s fields, who are also Mayan?”

Shona Clarkson, 19, is president of Latin American Solidarity at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and an active member of Lawrence Fair Food.

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