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One cent makes more sense

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Photo: Andrew Blejwas / Oxfam America
Photo: Andrew Blejwas / Oxfam America

“It’s not our problem, it’s not our problem, it’s not our problem.”

That’s the frequent mantra of those who are in the position to create significant change—but won’t. And it’s a mantra being invoked again in the southeast United States. This time by Publix Supermarkets, which is resisting calls from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—an Oxfam partner—to double the wages of tomato pickers.

Publix’s resistance might make sense if it were not for the fact that all it takes to double the daily wage of tomato pickers is paying one more penny per pound of tomatoes picked.

So when Publix officials say “CIW’s complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with retailers and their customers,” they are essentially saying “it’s not our problem.” But denying that it’s a problem is an easy way to deny ownership of a solution. Companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Whole Foods understood that they were in the position to put pressure on their contractors to improve working conditions in the fields. Those contractors don’t want to lose the business of large corporations. That gives those companies, and Publix, significant leverage.

Advocates for farm worker rights have long been trying to draw a connection between those who produce a product and those who sell it, but doing so has been difficult. The layers of subcontracting often get in the way allowing companies like Publix to claim that the workers picking tomatoes in their supply chain aren’t their employees, and thus their working conditions aren’t their problem to resolve. Tobacco companies make the same claims in North Carolina; paper companies do it to their workers in Alabama and so on.

This is why campaigns like CIW’s are so critical.

Several weeks ago, I was privileged to march with CIW supporters and farmworkers on their 22-mile Farmworker Freedom March through central Florida. The idea behind the march was simple: you can beat your head against a wall arguing your position with companies like Publix or you can take your case to the streets, which is what CIW decided to did. Because when you stack the ‘it’s-not-our-problem’ argument up against the penny-per-pound math, one cent makes more sense.

That march may be over, but the issue is still unresolved. CIW is going strong in their campaign for fair wages for farmworkers and they need your support. Visit their website to find out how you can help.

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