Chipotle is a rapidly growing chain that’s trying to distinguish itself from the competition by showcasing itself as a model of ethical food production. It’s championing small farmers, seeking humanely-raised animal products, and providing vegan and vegetarian meals to customers. In this business climate, it’s a very smart move to be making, as greenwashing is appealing to consumers; they want to buy products from companies that claim to care about animals and the environment, so they can feel better about buying those products. Chipotle has done what any smart business would do by tapping into that market and getting ahead of the pack.
By being an early adopter when it comes to reforms that are rather aggressive and radical for the fast food industry, Chipotle is making sure it stands out. Food activists can cite it as a case study when discussing ways to mass produce meals while still meeting ethical standards, using Chipotle as a model for ways in which other fast food companies can improve their production practices and policies.
Except they can’t, because Chipotle has a serious human rights problem and it has chosen to dig in its heels over it, despite public attention…and the fact that several other fast food chains have already agreed to work on the same problem. That problem surrounds conditions for farmworkers on tomato farms, who have notoriously long hours and grueling conditions. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a major leader in farmworker rights, is asking Chipotle to get on board with companies like McDonalds, who have agreed to pay a small additional per-pound price, take a zero-tolerance policy for child labour, and enable better monitoring and reporting on tomato farms.
This is hardly the stuff of which revolutions are made, as Sami Grover points out. It’s pretty much bare minimum in terms of corporate responsibility and improving conditions for workers, but Chipotle still doesn’t want to do it. The obvious question is: Why? Companies that don’t have a great record on these issues are participating, indicating that they think it’s not cost-prohibitive and will get them some good public relations credit, critical to establishing and maintaining a reputation for responsibility in the fast food market.
Chipotle appears confident that it can rest on its laurels with regard to other ethical measures, and it’s notable that most of these measures focus on environmental politics and the livelihood of small farmers, rather than the lives of people who work on small farms. The company has very effectively sussed out what consumers care about, and farmworkers are low on the list. While it will lose some business over its tomato sourcing, apparently it’s decided that implementing better policies for sources would be more expensive than taking a small PR hit by basically saying that farmworkers aren’t a significant ethical concern.
This is a reflection of larger social attitudes about farmworkers; the labour that goes into food production is often not factored into discussions about ethical and sustainable food. People may claim, for example, that food is cruelty-free and ethical when this is not in fact that case, because workers were exploited to produce it. Consumers are willing to overlook this when products come with a shiny green veneer because they’ve been acculturated to disregard labour, and companies producing products and services are eager to maintain this status quo, since treating workers fairly can get expensive; they’d be required to eat some of their precious profits in order to keep prices competitive if they wanted to ensure safe and dignified working conditions for their personnel on the ground.
Agricultural work is extremely dangerous and it’s an industry that is particularly ripe for exploitation. Most farmworkers are immigrants and many have limited education. They certainly doesn’t know about the legal rights and resources available to them, and how to address inequality in the workplace. It’s not uncommon for big farms to keep staff in unsafe conditions, threatening them with deportation and other punishments if they attempt to leave, let alone report their working conditions. Overseers may seize identity papers to keep workers trapped on site, and workers make nothing approaching fair pay for the backbreaking hard labour they engage in on a daily basis.
Farmworker rights must be an integral part of conversations about food justice; many farmworkers can’t even afford the produce they’re picking while they risk serious injury and illness to produce cheap food for consumers. Produce is not cruelty free and responsibly produced if the people who cultivate, harvest, and handle it are not making fair ranges and are exposed to safety risks in the workplace. A disregard for farmworkers means that companies like Chipotle can earn responsibility credits and look like good guys when they are anything but. This is not a side issue or something that would be nice when it comes to ethical food: It’s a key issue that should be a critical part of any sort of fair/humane/ethical farming certification or accolade.
I don’t want to do business with companies that abuse their workers, and I don’t want to support a status quo that ignores worker abuse in favour of other issues. It’s possible to pressure companies into doing the right thing by animals, the environment, and human beings, and this pressure should be exerted when asking companies to commit to greater social responsibility. Because none of us are free until all of us are free, and that includes farmworkers.