Chipotle responds

September 3, 2009 — 4 Comments

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UPDATE 9/9/09 :: Chipotle has reached an agreement with the CIW famers.

A couple weeks back we talked with Amanda Kloer on our podcast. She shared a lot about the issue of human trafficking and modern day slavery. And in the process we talked about an article she had posted earlier that day regarding Chipotle and the rights of farmers in Florida.

I’ve shared links to Amanda’s article in several places and after my initial Twitter messages, left a voice mail with their PR department. I followed up again with Chipotle today (via Twitter) to see what they had to say.

This time I had a brief exchange over email so here’s the latest from Chipotle:

Chipotle :: I’m not sure how closely you’ve been following this issue between Chipotle and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or the bigger issues associated with labor in Florida’s tomato fields or the fact that farm workers are one of only two groups not protected by the same labor laws that govern all other sectors of employment (which is really the root of all of this). It is all fairly complex. Where we are at the moment is that we have been working with the CIW for several months now, among other things to try and find growers who will actually pass along incremental funds from us to workers (right now, money that is earmarked for workers under CIW agreements is piling up in escrow accounts because the mechanism for payment has been blocked by the industry). We are making significant progress on that front and expect to be working with a grower (or growers) who will work with us to improve wages for workers when we resume buying Florida tomatoes this winter (we only use Florida tomatoes for a couple of months in the winter, so we’re not buying from there at all right now).

My response ::

Thanks.

I realize there are likely a number of complexities surrounding this, but its an important matter to both me and my friends. I really appreciate you getting back with me.

If I understand you correctly, Chipotle is making additional payments to the workers, but the industry itself is blocking the payment of the funds. Could Chipotle work around the industry and possibly start your own organic farms where these farmers are paid decent wages all the time?

It seems next to impossible to buy food or any other products that are 100% clear and free of unfair wages and/or slavery somewhere along the supply chain.

We love Chipotle and your commitment to quality organic food, but we would also love to be able to say that not only is the food grown responsibly, the workers are treated fairly and ethically.

Also, if its an issue with the industry itself, please let us know where we can direct our attention to make changes industry wide as well.

Chipotle :: As for alternatives such as those you’ve suggested, some of them would be enormous leaps (like getting into the farming business ourselves). It would be very distracting and very much outside the things we know and are good at. But we are always evaluating our practices and looking for ways to make positive changes in our supply system.

In order to work around the industry, you’d need growers who are willing to do that. We are looking for growers who will work with us and are optimistic that we will find them before the Florida tomato season begins again.

When the first deal with the CIW was struck (with Yum! Brands/Taco Bell), they were able to fulfill that deal and pass the additional penny per pound on to the workers. When the second deal was cut (with McDonald’s) the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (which represents more than 90% of Florida tomato growers) blocked the mechanism for payment. Under the initial Taco Bell deal, the growers provided labor records to either CIW or Taco Bell, so it could be determined how many tomatoes each worker picked for Taco Bell, Taco Bell could use that information to pay the incremental penny per pound in costs to the workers, and the money could go to the workers. (Workers who pick tomatoes are paid essentially a piece rate based on the weight of the tomatoes they pick, so the labor records were needed under this kind of arrangement to pay the workers). At the time of the second CIW deal, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange blocked the payment mechanism saying it was illegal to provide the labor records and threatening significant fines if its member growers cooperated (I believe they have since lifted the threat of fine, but the block remains in place as the growers are not willing to cooperate). Right now, that money is all piling up in escrow accounts (we are among those funding such an account). It is our strong preference to find away around all of this that will actually impact on the lives of the growers.

I applaud Chipotle for working towards fair wages. I hope the food industry as a whole will make changes as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are more than just 2 or 3 companies who could/should be pressured into paying higher wages. But it all begins with our own wallets.

It begins with the decisions we make with each and every purchase.

If we purchase products from companies who have a history of mistreating their workers in order to improve their bottom line, we’re only encouraging their behavior. If enough people decide to pass on products that have a history of mistreatment, the companies will be forced to examine their business practices and make changes.

So what about you? Are you satisfied with Chipotle’s response? Would you give up tomatoes and salsa on your burritos to take a stand? Would you give up buying Florida tomatoes to take a stand?

Jonathan Blundell

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4 responses to Chipotle responds

  1. Ronni Blumenthal September 4, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    It is true that money is being held in escrow. Many farms trying to do the right thing for their workers have been more or less told that they will be kept out of the market by the Florida Tom. Growers, a powerful group. Organic farms like LadyMoon and others have committed to the program but they already were treating their workers the right way. This is a serious situation and it is the FTG who need to hear from the public. Chipolte is, at last, trying to do the right thing.

  2. Ronni Blumenthal September 4, 2009 at 9:44 am

    It is true that money is being held in escrow. Many farms trying to do the right thing for their workers have been more or less told that they will be kept out of the market by the Florida Tom. Growers, a powerful group. Organic farms like LadyMoon and others have committed to the program but they already were treating their workers the right way. This is a serious situation and it is the FTG who need to hear from the public. Chipolte is, at last, trying to do the right thing.

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