I say tomato,​ you say toma-No

| Staff Columnist

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 richard.markel@gmail.com.

  • Aher

    This guy is correct. I’ve been grwonig tomatoes and peppers for almost a decade, and his advice will save you years of screwing around. If you can afford to not be cheap, don’t be cheap. Make CRW (concrete reinforcement wire ) cages or get the Texas Tomato Cages. CRW cages rust, are hard to store and look like crap after a year or two, but they work well. The Texas Tomato Cages have a high initial cost, but will save you time and money in the long run. Plus, they don’t rust.

  • Bryan D

    So you’re saying that boycotts don’t work? Well, I can’t think of one time in history a boycott/strike has worked -sarcasm. The real problem here lies within capitalism itself. Unevenness is exactly what drives capitalism. The notion to obtain a maximum profit, no matter the cost, is because we are all individually-motivated. We want what benefits us, especially businesses or corporations. In order to solve this problem, people need to change their thinking to provide their employees with a higher standard of living. “Fair trade” on coffee is a good example where a business will pay a flat, life sustaining rate, whether the market price would benefit them or not.

  • Joe

    You claim that the CIW is a “tomato cartel”, that their premise of improving working conditions and gaining a fair wage is “absurd” and “misleading”. We’re supposed to question their motives, according to you, but you don’t even say why you think this is the case, let alone give any evidence to support your claims.

  • Russell

    ^Ditto. I definitely support Bon Appetit’s decision here.

    (Although I hope the CIW gets their demands met soon, because I’m really starting to miss my tomatoes… lol )

  • Joey

    By far, the biggest oversight of your article is “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.” Your premise relies on the fact that picking these tomatoes is a ‘job,’ from which one can be ‘fired.’ State and federal law enforcement agencies, however, have defined several of these operations as slavery. Because of that alone, your argument falls flat–it’s like asking us to keep buying Southern cotton in 1860, because if we boycott it, all the pickers will be out of a ‘job’.

    As others above me have pointed out, you also seem strikingly ill-informed about the specifics of this subject. Please do a little reading about the real world next time before trying to convince readers of your armchair economics.

  • Brandon L

    On a more positive note, I absolutely applaud Bon Appetit for trying to be socially and environmentally responsible even at the possible cost of profit loss. More businesses and companies should pay this much attention to the origins of their products.

  • Jess

    Amen to Melissa L and J!

  • J

    This article is so ignorant I don’t know where to begin.
    1) “Labor activists” have not “shifted their gaze toward farmers” – there have been farm worker unions lobbying against unfair practices for at least half a century. In any industry with inhumane standards, activists and unions arise because without them, workers are forced to sacrifice their dignity for a bottom line in an accounting department somewhere. CIW has been around for more than 15 years – this is a just one victory in a larger national battle that has been waging on since well before you were born.

    2) CIW is simply enforcing the law in a place where it has been allowed to let slip. The tomatoes you ate previously supported illegal practices – either hiring illegal immigrants, or not paying workers the minimum wage mandated by law, often both of these. So whether you like to admit it or not, the prices you paid were a direct result of broken laws – supporting these essentially makes you an accomplice, whether intentionally or not.

    3) “The most important fact to realize” is not that a bad job is better than no job for people born without opportunity, but that there is a basic set of human rights which should be upheld regardless of industry, location, the state of the economy, or the price that you as a consumer find convenient to pay for a good. You are arguing that a particular set of human beings is less deserving of basic rights than you because of where you were born. I hope you understand the implications of this argument. Basic rights are not “excessive conditions”, they are requirements to live in peace.

    4) The current market price for tomatoes and other food products is artificially low. Americans pay less for food as a percentage of their income than any other developed country, partially due to passive acceptance of lower labor standards and illegal workers. You are arguing that without denying people human rights, “poor people” and perhaps yourself will not be able to afford food – as if the global price of tomatoes would suddenly triple by slightly increasing one component of production costs (labor). I find this especially hard to believe since it is easily possible to eat in St. Louis for $300/month. The “requirement” argument really only affects freshmen who are forced into the meal plan – a requirement which could likely be waived if enough students got behind it.

    5) Your argument that if Bon Appetit “stops funding” a company’s operations it will lead directly to layoffs is grossly simplified. If a TRUE boycott occurs (where market demand is reduced substantially enough to lead to extreme oversupply and wasted production cost until the boycott is halted) the suppliers will eventually have to give in to the cause of the boycott, or become unprofitable. However, this action represents only one purchaser (albeit a large one) and in reality will serve more as a signal to the industry and an improvement to a selection of workers than an industry-altering move that results in massive layoffs. FAR more workers will benefit from this action than will be fired, by an order of magnitude. And if you weren’t aware, firing workers in direct response to them demanding basic rights isn’t very good for PR, and often leads to even more backlash.

    6) Are you arrogant enough to assume you know more about what is best for tomato workers than they do? Do you think they have been organizing for 15 years without understanding the implications of their actions? Do you think they are really trying to “dupe” large purchasers into a scheme that will result in the workers who make up the union getting fired, rather than a program that will ensure them basic human rights?

    To sum it up, your article will have one result. Applying B-School 101 to one small component of a complex scenario involving local and national regulations, international markets, and the lives of real people will make you look like a pompous know-it-all who, it is clear, actually knows nothing. Before dismissing the rights essential to the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people as “ridiculous” you should ask yourself: do you really deserve an editorial space in any legitimate publication?

  • Richard Jesse Markel

    See, I think you really missed the point of the article. I point out that sweatshop labor is really really bad and that I’m against it. However I am able to see beyond such myopic concerns and see that in a cost/benefit light, this Coalition of Immokalee Workers is only harming themselves long-term.

    Furthermore, attacking me on what lifestyle you falsely project onto me really undermines your argument. What clothing I wear, whether it be from Goodwill or Versace, and whether or not I’ve don’t field labor is irrelevant to my overarching point.

    Also, FYI, I hate the Republican Party. I absolutely abhor it. I’d never vote for them if I could avoid it.


  • Melissa L

    I’d like to have my tomatoes WITHOUT a side of injustice, please.

    First of all, the workers’ rights issues in the tomato fields in Florida are worse than you are making it sound. These people have not “landed a job on a farm paying minimum wage.” They are paid by the pound for their tomotoes, and in order to earn minimum wage at these rates, each individual worker would have to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes per day. Have you ever tried to pick 2.5 tons of anything in one day? I’ll wager not. 2.5 tons is a LOT of tomatoes. Even more alarmingly, the government has stepped in and declared at least 7 tomato-picking operations in Florida to have slavery conditions. So this isn’t your average minimum wage job. I suggest you look a little bit more into what is actually going on before you dive into the CIW’s hidden agenda. Here is some further reading: http://www.gourmet.com/foodpolitics/2009/03/politics-of-the-plate-tomato-slaves-follow-up and http://ciw-online.org/101.html#facts

    The other point I would like to make is that, while Bon Appetit has withdrawn its financial support of the non-compliant farms, it has not stopped buying tomatoes altogether. They are buying tomatoes from the farms that have signed an agreement to pay their workers a fair wage. With their added support, these responsible firms can expand and hire more people, so the market should shift little by little to offer more well- (or better-) paying jobs and less…slavery. It’s not an insignificant change.

    Another thought: you may be getting cheap tomatoes from those low-paying farms, but who do you think pays for the workers’ health care? Their food stamps? Taxpayers do. Which will be you and me shortly, if not already. So although tomatoes might be cheaper in the short run, there are huge externalities to unfairly low wages that may not yet be accounted for. But someone will have to pay. I say it’s better to pay more money for the tomatoes up front and allow these folks to have a chance at a better life. Maybe my compassion is getting in the way of looking after my own bottom line, but you know what? I rest easier that way.

    Well done, though, B-school. You’re well on your way to a spot in some corporate responsibility office somewhere, defending your company for its complete disregard for human suffering.

    • Morgan

      thanks again for choosing such a menniagful and relevant topic to discuss. thank god our local farmers markets have started up again for the season.a very popular book (the omnivore’s dilemma) spoke at length about the organic and natural federal guidelines. it appears that organic and natural farms have equally as horrible working conditions for their employees and equally as awful living/feeding conditions for the animals. it’s a challenge sometimes to stay on track and not purchase the purdue chicken that is so conveniently packaged and so affordable. but the guilt i feel when i do leaves a bad taste in my mouth. both literally and figuratively.

  • Kim C

    You seem to know more about this then CIW and any other organization; question is have you met the farm workers? have you walked the fields? have you seen the condition these laborers have to endure? i would guess NOT; but you seem to sit in your nice room and wear nice cloths and eat well without any thought as the poor people who made the items you consume as how these poor people live and are treated; you are one of those Republican directed people who only think of their own needs and luxuries and not even consider how others live. I don’t blame you after all you were born with a silver spoon/foot in your mouth.

    • Damariz

      Maggy, I agree with you I feel like a nut job when I shop anymore. Especially being relsnopibse for two young children. I’m constantly torn between what I can afford and what is best for them. I hate the reading and deciphering of ingredients..are they cage free really? is it really organic or just skating by ugh. In all reality I should set up my time better so that I can just hit up local farmers markets..after all, there is one right at the high school! This article has inspired me!