Last month, I spoke about Out of Sight to a class at Brown. These were, naturally enough, pretty wealthy kids. They liked the book, which was assigned to them in a class, but found one thing uncomfortable. That was the open contempt I have toward corporate behavior, seeing them as enemies of both labor standards and environmental sustainability. In their questions to me, they kept coming back to this, asking about “good corporations” or voluntary codes of conduct. I of course rejected all of this, stating that even if you have a “good” CEO, if that person leaves, the corporate culture can very easily change and that the ultimate point of corporations is to profit, not be responsible citizens. This story about the berry company Driscoll’s, which claims to have a fair trade standards and advertises that they do, is why I feel this way.
Farm workers, mostly undocumented and Indigenous, doubled their movement for a union contract this year, inspired by the winning Fight for 15 campaign but demanding more.
“It’s almost the same fight,” Ramon Torres, berry picker and director of Families United for Justice, told teleSUR. The differences, though, are important.
Since most migrant farm workers do not have U.S. citizenship, they are not protected under labor law, nor by their employees, no matter how progressive their labor policy. They also see much more cases of child labor and of wage theft.
The fruit producer is heavily backed by supermarket chains like Costco and Whole Foods, who insist that its practices comply with fair trade standards.
After the Sakuma workers brought attention to their dismal conditions — poor housing, up to 15 hours of work a day without no breaks, racial harassment — Driscoll’s responded that, “Sakuma is in compliance with our standards and is making continuous improvements in providing a forum for open dialogue and empowerment for their farmworkers.”
Because Families United for Justice is not able to register as a union under state law, Driscoll’s said there is nothing else they can do.
Still, Torres said that it proudly distributes a sticker that guarantees fair trade practices, essentially a lie that covers up continuing mistreatment of its employers.
Simply put, voluntary fair trade standards without legal requirements are utterly meaningless. That doesn’t mean they are terrible in themselves or anything. If a company wants to engage in fair trade standards and then actually does so, then good. But if nothing is forcing them to and there’s no monitoring of it by outside organizations, the chances is that it’s just the labor version of greenwashing.