I say tomato, you say toma-No
Heard the news? No more tomatoes on campus. The University’s catering service has been duped by the latest incarnation of the classic “sweatshop” argument. Labor conditions activists, who classically gave Nike grief about how they make shoes, have shifted their gaze toward farmers. Our food service company, Bon Appétit, has been tricked into supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their so-called “fair food” campaign. In addition to the simple fact that there will no longer be fresh tomatoes served on campus, this action by Bon Appétit is actually going to hurt the very laborers they think they’re protecting. Allow me to explain.
I don’t like people to have bad working conditions. It makes them feel unhappy and lowers their productivity. However it is completely wrong to think, as many have been led to believe, that boycotting firms that don’t provide stellar working conditions is the best way to go about helping the workers. It’s quite the opposite actually: If you stop funding a company’s operations, in the short-run upper management will have to cut back on operations. How do they go about doing this? They fire workers. If you’re a laborer who has just landed a job on a farm paying a minimal wage and you intend to send money home to care for your family, getting fired would be pretty bad. Yet, when your company is being boycotted, that’s exactly what will happen.
Sweatshop labor is not ideal. It’s not even good. In fact, it’s pretty lousy. However the most important fact to realize is that a bad job with poor working conditions is, for destitute immigrant workers, far better than being stuck without a job and no source of income. In reality, Bon Appétit is hurting the workers it claims to be siding with.
I think that both the general public and the Washington University community should question the motives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, as well as those of the group’s supporters. The CIW is trying to lure tomato farmers onto their program of supposedly “fair” wages and labor practices. Twelve lines of MacBeth will remind you: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t speaking directly about tomato cartels, but the skepticism about supposed intentions is relevant nonetheless. Under the misleading guise of an “anti-slavery” campaign, the CIW is trying to get farms to sign on to their plan that will supposedly improve labor conditions.
The issue most relevant to the tomato debate is not labor. It’s the resulting price increases on food that come with the CIW’s plan. By imposing excessive conditions on farms, production costs will rise significantly. This in turn translates into a price increase. For every produce farm that signs on to the CIW’s scheme, the price of food will go up a little bit more. What about the poorest workers now out of a job? They can’t afford the more expensive food. The CIW seems counterintuitive, no?
To sum it up, Bon Appétit’s supporting the Coalition of Immokalee workers will have two results. Their cessation of tomato purchases will force farms lay off workers. In addition, Bon Appétit putting its weight behind the absurd premises of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will give the movement more momentum, absorbing more farms into the mix and raising the prices of food. Before buying into the ridiculous “anti-slavery” story and supporting a tomato boycott, you should ask yourself: In a weak economy, do we really want to put people out of work, cut the food supply, and raise the prices of essential produce? I personally think that cutting jobs and raising prices on food is a deplorable idea. You, however, should make up your own mind.
Richard is a junior in Business. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.