Executively produced by Eva Longoria, Eric Schlosser and Abigail Disney, Food Chains is a ground-breaking, new documentary exposing the rampant abuses of American farm labourers.
Told through the narrative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an intrepid group of tomato pickers in Florida who are battling the 5 trillion dollar global supermarket industry – and winning, the film aims to expose the businesses responsible.
We interviewed Sanjay Rawal, the Director of Food Chains, about the situation for farm workers in the US.
Most people have no idea that they are connected to this system, how did the plight of farm workers come on to your radar?
I was raised in an agricultural family. My father, Dr Kanti Rawal, was a tomato geneticist for Del Monte in California and I spent my summers on farms in the Central Valley. He and I actually had a small tomato genetics conference together and when I was at a tomato conference in Florida in 2011, it all hit home to me. I was reading a book Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook about the exploitation that existed then in the Florida tomato industry and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it. At the same time, I was excited because the industry was beginning a rapid transformation, led by a group of workers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and a few very conscious farmers. Now, dare I say, the Florida tomato industry is the most progressive sector in agriculture in the United States.
What do you feel is the biggest issue facing farm workers in the US? How does this compare to the situation globally?
It’s incomprehensible that in most states in the US, farmworkers have no way to report abuse. In an environment where abuses can go unchecked, exploitation is rampant. The CIW’s Fair Food Program has addressed this in the Florida tomato industry. Firstly, workers are trained in what their rights are. At the same time, farmers are required to implement a Code of Conduct and if they don’t, they’re barred from selling their tomatoes to 12 of the largest buyers in the world like Walmart and McDonalds.
Globally, the situation for farm workers is abysmal. In the US, farm workers might be treated worse than other workers and face low pay and poor working conditions, but farm workers globally face a much worse fate. In Mexico, for example, which supplies the US with a large proportion of our produce, workers are routinely underpaid, robbed of wages and treated horrifically.
What do you see as being the driver for change in the future? Is it down to consumers or politicians?
Legislation against abuse exists. It’s the enforcement mechanisms that are lacking. So in that sense, politicians have totally failed farm workers. The CIW realised that the power in the supply chain exists at the top – with multibillion dollar grocery and fast food chains. Consumers, therefore, play a critical role. The CIW was able to harness consumer awareness and action to pressure companies like Taco Bell and Trader Joes to sign their Fair Food Program and guarantee the rights of farm workers in Florida.
The fast food companies seemed more open to take action. Why do you think there was such a reluctance from the supermarkets to acknowledge the problem and their part in it?
Fast food is a large industry but it pales in comparison to the supermarket industry. McDonalds, the fast food giant, earned about $45 billion while Walmart’s grocery division grossed over $300 billion. Large grocery stores set the terms down the supply chain – what farmers grow, how they grow it and how much they can expect for their goods. Supermarkets have tremendous power and therefore, I believe, experience more inertia when it comes to changing course.
Has there been any further progress with the supermarkets since filming?
Since we began filming, Walmart signed the CIW’s Fair Food Program, but the other major chains like Kroger and Safeway have shown very little interest in the CIW’s programme. Publix, the gigantic Florida chain and the villain in our film is another story entirely. I doubt they’ll ever sign.
How has the film been received by farm owners?
A few farmers have seen our film at pre-screenings and they liked it! Many, however, are afraid that we will point the finger at them, which has been historically what has happened. We don’t. We make a very clear point that farmers are not to blame for the abysmal conditions of farm workers now. The real target of our ire should be the large purchasers of produce like grocery chains. Many farmers are totally squeezed by these chains – the average farmer has seen his or her profits shrink by 50% since the 90s because of the power of supermarkets. I’m hoping farm owners embrace our film because this struggle is theirs too.
Do you see the struggle to make a return from farming becoming increasingly severe as climate change makes US harvests become more precarious? What will this mean for migrant workers?
The US has the capacity to grow 100% of its produce but we import about 50% because prices abroad are cheaper. I think it’s critical that we shift more production to the US. Climate change is affecting everyone. We have much less control over practices in other countries, however, and if we move production back to the US, I think we’ll be in better shape. Plus the conditions for workers while bad here are infinitely better than most countries from which we import produce. Let’s focus on the change – here.
Are the numbers of migrant workers still on the rise? Why do you think that this is given the hardship that they face?
Migration is a function of economics. NAFTA drove corn prices so low that it was impossible for Mexican farmers to compete with the subsidised US corn flooding their market. We saw a huge rise in the population of Mexican-born people in the US after NAFTA, many of whom came without documents. With all the unrest in Central America, we, again, see a rapid rise in migration of people from those countries. They see the US as a haven and land of opportunity. And the jobs they’re willing to take aren’t ones that Americans want to take. These migrants are NOT taking our jobs. It’s important to realise that, and to realise how vital they are to our economy. And it’s up to us to lessen their hardship.
What are your hopes for this film and what do you see as the next steps?
I’m hoping that this film can help amplify the CIW’s existing Campaign for Fair Food and pressure retailers to join the programme. We need folks to see the film and then join the movement. Please visit www.foodchainsfilm.com for theatre info and showtimes.
What advice or action should individuals take or do to support a fair wage for farm workers?
Once the CIW’s Fair Food Program becomes ubiquitous, the flood gate will open for workers in other industries. People should join their Campaign for Fair Food. Please visit www.foodchainsfilm.com for a number of easy ways to support their programme and take action.
Food Chains is released in theatres across the US on 21st November.
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