Heroic Endeavor: Sanjay Rawal's New Film, Food Chains

Although they truly make up the foundation of our food system, farmworkers have never gotten the respect – or the compensation – they deserve for their backbreaking, indispensable work. Historically exempt from the Fair Labor Act, the people who grow and harvest our food have always been among the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. The farmworker movement of the 1970s brought much needed attention to the decidedly untenable conditions seen in most fields, but the modern food movement has largely turned a blind eye to the issue. In 2008, at Slow Food Nation, Eric Schlosser famously proclaimed that it didn’t matter how a tomato was grown if it was harvested through slave labor, lauding the inspirational work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that has not only brought farm labor back into the mainstream, but also demonstrated the powerful role consumers can play in solving the problem.

Filmmaker Sanjay Rawal’s new documentary, Food Chains, takes an unflinching look at abuses in the fields, but it also tells as hopeful story. Its stars, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have made incredible strides over the past decade, managing to strike agreements with some of the world’s largest fast food companies and grocery stores through consumer pressure. (They’ve also been a huge source of inspiration for us at GRACE, and are the subjects of several of our videos, too.)

In the runup to Labor Day 2014, we spoke with Sanjay about the film, what inspired him to make it and the potential for the CIW's model to improve working conditions in other areas of the food system.

Food Chains opens nationwide November 21st.

What inspired to you to make a film about farm labor?

I grew up in the agricultural industry. My father, Dr. Kanti Rawal, had worked for a joint Ford Foundation / Rockefeller Foundation project in Nigeria, where I was born. We then moved to Colorado where he was a professor and then to California, where he worked for Del Monte as a tomato breeder. I had always been around the industry. After nearly two decades of living in New York in a decidedly non-agricultural environment (I had moved from California at 22 to study with the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy), I found myself in Florida attending a tomato conference on my dad’s behalf and reading Barry Estabrook’s fantastic book Tomatoland. Tomatoland paints a stark picture of Florida agriculture, revealing heart-wrenching stories of pesticide poisoning and modern-day slavery. I couldn’t believe what I was reading and I knew that my friends and colleagues, many of whom were conscious eaters, didn’t understand the exploitation of labor at the base of the food chain.

I also knew that while Florida’s history was one of exploitation, a group of tomato-pickers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) from Immokalee, Florida, were changing that. Barry himself said recently that the most oppressive sector of American agriculture, namely the tomato industry in Florida, has been transformed into one of the most progressive because of the work of the CIW.

In really diving into this issue, what shocked you the most about the working conditions in Immokalee, and do you think they’re representative of farm labor in other places?

Farm labor has a checkered past. In the South, farms relied on slave labor. In the West, the Mission Fathers enslaved Native Americans to work in their fields. After the Emancipation Proclamation, as the agricultural economy of the north grew to support larger and larger urban centers, farms began relying on migrating labor forces that traveled north-south transportation corridors: from Yuma, Arizona to Washington State, from Florida to New York State, and so on. In the past 100 plus years, these jobs were always the hardest and the most unstable, often attracting people with no better options - namely fresh immigrants. Wave after wave of immigrant populations filled the ranks of migrant labor, from Chinese and Japanese to Haitian and Jamaican. Of course, many poor Caucasians also worked as laborers.

The CIW’s Fair Food Program is the future. If corporations passed the cost of doubling wages of ALL farmworkers onto customers, what would it cost? It would cost a family of four about 18 cents more for food each day. 

What I’m saying is that farm labor has always been tough and poorly paid. When workers are so poor that they cannot afford to miss a paycheck, they’ll put up with almost anything. This holds true globally in any industry. And in farming, a sector that grew from the plantation era, labor has never been treated well. Many of the same attitudes remained as the decades passed and abuses intolerable in any other sector were the norm in farm work: wage-theft, sexual harassment and in the most extreme cases, modern-day slavery. 

Immokalee is in the heart of the region of the US once known as “ground-zero for modern-day slavery” and while many abuses there were horrific and extreme, Immokalee isn’t an aberration. Anywhere that extreme poverty exists, so does extreme exploitation. And across the US, we see farmworkers amongst the most exploited, still, of any labor force in our nation.

How did you decide to focus the film on the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and in particular, on their campaign to get Publix Markets to join their Fair Food Program?

The initial nine months of filming were so depressing as we logged interviews in California, Florida and the Northeast. We didn’t set out to make a sad film, but one of hope and promise that things could change. My teacher, Sri Chinmoy, always inspired people to find what was good and use that to overcome negativity. The CIW were one such bright light in a relatively dark industry. We knew that their incredible successes in forcing change at the farm level through pressure from the multibillion dollar retailers who rule the supply chain could be an example for farmworkers everywhere. We were eager to see how they created this model of change and how effective it was in transforming the lives of workers.

We arrived in Immokalee in December 2011 as their campaign against the Florida supermarket giant, Publix, was heating up. We ended up spending a week filming their Fast for Fair Food outside the headquarters of Publix in Central Florida. All the CIW were asking for was an opportunity to discuss their Fair Food Program with Publix. This program has the support of 12 massive companies like Taco Bell and Wal-mart. It asks retailers to pay an extra penny per pound for their purchases of Florida tomatoes, which DOUBLES the wages of workers. Most importantly it prohibits retailers from buying from farms that have had human rights violations. As a result, farms have begun to treat workers as true partners in their fight to root out abuse.

Publix, supposedly one of the friendliest places to work, has to this day refused even to meet the CIW - even at the behest of Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s widow, dozens of religious leaders, thousands of students and tens of thousands of customers. If this mentality of refusing to see workers as human beings isn’t analogous to the insipid attitude prevalent on plantations, I don’t know what else is.

In the film, food writer Barry Estabrook says that the Fair Food Program could serve as a model for workers in other fields (literally and figuratively) who want to organize for better working conditions. Are there any areas you think are particularly ripe for this?

First of all, Barry is one of our nation’s greatest investigative journalists and follows in the footsteps of Upton Sinclair. In fact, his upcoming book on the pork industry is sure to expose an industry seemingly darker than farm labor. Barry has recognized the CIW’s model of invoking the power of consumers and the value of their relationship with large brands. These large companies have so much to lose when their brands are tarnished. Middlemen have almost nothing to lose. The CIW have successively leveraged consumer activism to pressure corporations to make essential changes.

The CIW’s partners buy many, many more things than just tomatoes - and many products outside the agricultural industry. McDonald’s joined the Fair Food Program and is now ensuring human rights and decent wages for tomato pickers, why couldn’t they do that for the workers who pack their meat in the factories of corporations whose names and brands are unrecognizable by the end-consumer of the beef? True change in supply chains can never come from the top. The voice of the worker needs to drive the change. I think there’s a huge opportunity for organized meatpacking workers to replicate the CIW’s Fair Food Program with the same partners.

As you researched this issue, what were some of the most valuable books and films you learned from?

Our incredible Producer Eva Longoria produced a film on child labor in the fields called The Harvest/La Cosecha with one of our Executive Producers David Damian Figueroa. One of our other Executive Producers, Eric Schlosser, wrote a seminal piece of nonfiction Fast Food Nation, which is absolutely critical to a fuller understanding of labor in our industrialized food system. Another Executive Producer of ours, Lekha Singh, directed a film on forgiveness called Beyond Right and Wrong, which outlines the need for constructive solutions even amidst barbaric abuse. Barry Estabrook (our Co-Producer) wrote Tomatoland, as I mentioned. We brought together this production team for a reason!

Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser both feature largely in the film. Can you talk a little about their work in this area?

Eva is known as an incredibly talented actress and as a political force of nature. Unbeknownst to many, she also has a Masters degree in Chicano Studies and is an avid producer of social-issue documentaries like The Harvest. She is one of very, very few celebrities in recent times to have taken an active role in the support of farmworkers. Farmworkers don’t have lobbies in Washington, DC. They don’t have multibillion dollar charities dedicated to them. They exist in a shadow economy in the US, one that has always been hidden from view by those in power. Eva is fearless. She’s not afraid of calling out corporations on their malfeasance and she’s not afraid of supporting people who have no one else to do so.

Eric is regarded as a pillar of the modern food movement. He will attest, however, that his interest in food has always stemmed from his support of labor. In fact his first pieces in food journalism were on the devastating conditions of strawberry pickers in California. Many people have learned to distrust the fast food industry’s lax quality standards from reading his book Fast Food Nation. But that book was written primarily to shine a much-needed light on the horrific working conditions of fast food labors. Eric is a true populist reporter - one who is always quick to call attention to the human cost in industrialized systems. 

Who are some other leaders we should be looking to on this issue?

The CIW have been successful because they have, effectively, recruited corporate CEOs into the battle for human rights. They’ve found that change is slow or nonexistent at a legislative level and that corporations can create much more effective systems than legislators by including workers as change-agents. Wendy’s is one of the last remaining holdouts in the fast food industry. Their CEO Emil Brolick was CFO at Taco Bell when it became the first company to sign the Fair Food Program. Is he smarting from that? Possibly since he has refused to consider the Fair Food Program for Wendy’s.

The Jenkins family, which owns Publix, is one of the richest families in the United States and one of the most cloistered and backward thinking ones. At the same time, were Publix to sign on to the Fair Food Program, the lives of thousands of workers in the fields adjacent to their stores would change overnight.

There are many in the field who can inspire us, from Eric Schlosser and Eva Longoria to the magnificent Librada Paz in New York State and the members of the CIW, but the power to make change lies in the hands of a few. And it’s those few, perhaps ignorant leaders, whom we should be focusing our attention on.

Why do you think Publix has managed to hold out for so long? Do you think they’ll eventually sign?

Publix is a prototype of a modern-day plantation. The surface is shiny and everyone seems to be happy. But look deeper (in this case, look down the supply chain) and a far different reality emerges. Publix claims that the problems of farmworkers are not theirs. As stores become monolithic like Publix, Kroger or Wal-mart, they have an unreasonable effect on their suppliers and those suppliers’ workers. Supermarkets have wielded this massive power to drive down prices for consumers, true, but only because they drive down the price they’ll accept from farmers. Farmers, then, have no choice but to cut costs where they can, like labor. Farmworker wages have been effectively stagnant for decades. And even as consumers and local religious leaders beg Publix to make a small change and support the CIW, they refuse to do so because in their minds, they aren’t breaking any laws. This sounds like the type of argument a plantation owner in the South would make in the absence of a law like, let’s say, the 13th Amendment.

Morality can, in some cases, trump legality. And while there were brave Southerners who supported abolition there, too, are corporations that support programs like the Fair Food Program. Publix isn’t one of them.

What can the average person do to help ensure fairer work conditions for all food and farm workers?

The CIW’s Fair Food Program is the future. If every company that purchased Florida tomatoes signed the Fair Food Program, it would create a solid path for farmworkers in other industries to advocate for immediate wage increases and better working conditions. If corporations passed the cost of doubling wages of ALL farmworkers onto customers, what would it cost? It would cost a family of four about 18 cents more for food each day.