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IS THE PUNDIT SCROOGE? IS FAIR TRADE AN ANSWER? The LA Times And Coalition Of Immokalee Workers Tell Us How To Solve Mexico’s Labor Problems: Are These Answers Real Or Just A Christmas Carol?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 7, 2015

Our piece DAMAGING LOS ANGELES TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT MEXICAN LABOR, Though Incomplete And Unbalanced, Puts Retailers And Receivers On Notice: In A Transparent World, Retailers In America Are Now Responsible For Their Supply Chains. A Big Question: Will Improved Conditions For Laborers Lead To Less Employment? —  attracted a great deal of attention. In a follow-up piece, The Los Angeles Times referred to our assessment of the LA Times series by focusing on our thoughts regarding the impact of its articles:

Jim Prevor, a leading produce industry analyst, said the growers and distributors would be "foolish" to ignore the coverage.

He referred to an informational graphic published with The Times' series that showed how produce moved from a Mexican farm with abusive labor practices through middlemen to leading U.S. supermarket and restaurant chains.

Prevor called the chart "a game-changer."

"It is telling retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart that you own your supply chain and you will be held responsible for all that occurs within it," Prevor wrote in his Perishable Pundit blog.

In contrast, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers also weighed in. We highlighted the group’s “Penny-a-Pound” efforts and analyzed the subject in pieces such as these:

With Penny-A-Pound ‘Victory’,Coalition of Immokalee Workers Looks To Justify Its Actions

Florida Tomato Growers Reject Penny-A-Pound Initiative At The Industry’s Peril

Subway Joins Penny-A-Pound Program While Tomato Growers Feel The Pinch

Redlands Christian Migrant Association Is An Organization Worth Replicating Nationwide

Now the CIW wrote a three-part piece:

A 21st century Christmas Carol for the food industry?… Part One

Part Two: A 21st century Christmas Carol for the food industry?…

Part Three: A 21st century Christmas Carol for the food industry?…

The CIW decided the Pundit was a modern day Scrooge:

The LA Times grabs the food industry by the hand and drags it on a nightmare tour through the inhumanity of Mexico’s vegetable fields… 

How will this modern-day Christmas Carol end? Will the industry respond with a collective “Bah Humbug!”? Or might a “God bless us, every one!” be in the cards?

…Well, if the “Perishable Pundit’s” post on the series is any indication, the term “Bah Humbug” certainly comes to mind.  Here are just a few quotes from the Pundit, the nom de blog of produce industry insider Jim Prevor, who had more than a few bones to pick with the series: 

On child labor:

“Once again, though, there is no explanation of what these children would be doing if they were not working. Would they and their families really have better lives? Or would it just assuage the moral feelings of affluent American consumers?”

On why workers “choose” to take jobs in such horrific conditions:

“Virtually every one of them has a friend or relative who has already gone down this path. So they have intimate acquaintances with full knowledge of the pros and cons of working in the fields and yet they choose to do so.

This is really the important question to study. Why do they choose to do so? The almost certain answer is that, difficulties and all, they believe this path offers a better alternative than any other alternatives available to them.”

On whether the conditions described in the series constitute “exploitation” given the poverty of those who work the fields:

“There is hardship without a doubt, but for the poor life is always hard and it is odd to call “exploitation” the providing of an alternative that people view as a better alternative than any other choice they have.”

On the illegal withholding of workers’ wages by their employers until the end of the season:

“Perhaps the workers don’t want their wages given while they are encamped because they might get robbed or they might be tempted to spend the money rather than save it for their families.

Maybe a little more reporting would reveal why the wages are withheld in the first place. What happened in the past when, say, weekly or monthly payments were followed? The article is silent in this area.”

On what would happen if conditions were to improve in Mexico:

“Perhaps the biggest issue, which the article does not explore at all, is what the consequences would be of upgrading the situation of the field hands. Suppose there was really an effort to give workers the kinds of environments that would make Americans proud of their food supply chain? The one thing that is for certain is it would raise the price of the product and, as it did so, the labor situation would change.

Other growing areas would become more competitive and would take business away from the Mexicans.”

You can read more of the Perishable Pundit’s post here.

Yes, the post reads like a parody of Dickens, and given the timing of its publication, that really would be its most charitable reading. Except, it isn’t a parody.  The spirit of Scrooge is truly strong in this one.  The only thing missing from his response to the Times’ findings was an exasperated shout of “Are there no poor houses!?”    

Perhaps, before moving on, it is worth noting that a 12-yr old girl by the name of Alejandrina Castillo (pictured below), who is featured in the third installment of the LA Times series which focuses on child labor, shared many of her own thoughts on the question of “choice” in the investigative report.  Her quotes, scattered throughout the piece, are enlightening (and more than a bit appalling, frankly, given that the Pundit must have read these same quotations before penning his post):

 

 

  • “I work because… we need money to eat things.”
  • Alejandrina looked in the distance for the food truck. It was almost noon, five hours since she had a tortilla for breakfast. The sky was cloudless. It would be another 90-degree day in the palm-lined coastal farmland of southern Sinaloa. “I wish I was home with my baby brother,” she said.
  • Alejandrina’s feet ached and she shivered at night from the cold. She never complained. She understood that when the crops had been picked in one place, it was time to move on. “If we stay, we will die of starvation,” she said.
  • She once dreamed of becoming a teacher. “I think that it’s too late because … I failed myself, for not being in school,” she said. “And school is very important, so you can be someone.”

Now, her life was defined by the filth and dreariness of fieldwork. She said she could use some better shoes: “Here we suffer…. Here there is nothing but mud, all mud.”

So, that’s a different cut on things.  Guess the Pundit and Alejandrina are just going to have to agree to disagree.

Although, in the end, the CIW felt the Pundit had shown some heart:

But just as Scrooge’s dark night of soul-searing visions and denial gave way to the light of a new day and redemption, the Pundit’s post contains within it the seeds of self-awareness that will, ultimately, lead to change, whether the “Bah Humbug” responders want it or not.  Here’s the final message from his post:

But transparency on the supply chain is increasingly going to be demanded, and this article is neither the first nor the last. The newspaper’s effort in putting together graphs showing the flow of produce is a game-changer. It is telling retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart that you own your supply chain and you will be held responsible for all that occurs within it.

And on this count the Pundit is, finally, quite right…..

Although, overall, the CIW was not pleased with the Pundit:

As we pointed out in that first post, the reader of the “Pundit’s” response would have been forgiven if he or she had mistaken it for a holiday season parody, a sort of 21st century Scrooge’s take on the grinding poverty, rampant child labor, and humiliating abuse uncovered in Mexico’s fields.  Mr. Prevor wondered out loud whether the countless children — many of them under the age of 12 — working in the fields weren’t better off picking tomatoes and peppers than engaging in any imaginable alternative pursuit (say, for example, receiving an education in a public school).  

He asked whether the workers whose wages were found to be illegally withheld by their employers until the end of the season weren’t themselves better off rather than exposing their savings to the risk of being stolen, or spending their earnings recklessly on things of their own choosing.  And so forth.  His arguments attacking the Times’ reporting were so extreme as to be laughable.

Except Mr. Prevor is not — intentionally at least — in the business of writing satire.  His work is widely read, and his opinions widely respected, in the U.S. produce industry.  And so we asked, in the spirit of the season, if the LA Times series would not serve as a long-overdue awakening for the US food industry, a sort of modern-day Christmas Carol for the multi-billion dollar retail food corporations that profit so handsomely from buying and selling the produce picked in such unconscionable conditions…     

The reference to Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol is apt, but perhaps in ways that the CIW had not intended.

The classic essay critiquing the work of Charles Dickens was written by George Orwell and was originally published in 1940 in his book Inside the Whale and Other Essays, and in the essay titled simply “Dickens,” Orwell spoke to the story of A Christmas Carol and to similar themes that appear throughout Dickens’ work:

His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.

Naturally this calls for a few characters who are in positions of authority and who do behave decently. Hence that recurrent Dickens figure, the good rich man.

This character belongs especially to Dickens's early optimistic period. He is usually a ‘merchant’ (we are not necessarily told what merchandise he deals in), and he is always a superhumanly kind-hearted old gentleman who ‘trots’ to and fro, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail and in general, acting the fairy godmother.

Of course, he is a pure dream figure, much further from real life than, say, Squeers or Micawber. Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place.

Mr. Pickwick, for instance, had ‘been in the city’, but it is difficult to imagine him making a fortune there. Nevertheless this character runs like a connecting thread through most of the earlier books. Pickwick, the Cheerybles, old Chuzzlewit, Scrooge — it is the same figure over and over again, the good rich man, handing out guineas.

Dickens does, however, show signs of development here. In the books of the middle period, the good rich man fades out to some extent. There is no one who plays this part in A Tale of Two Cities, nor in Great Expectations — Great Expectations is, in fact, definitely an attack on patronage — and in Hard Times, it is only very doubtfully played by Gradgrind after his reformation. The character reappears in a rather different form as Meagles in Little Dorrit and John Jarndyce in Bleak House — one might perhaps add Betsy Trotwood in David Copperfield.

But in these books the good rich man has dwindled from a ‘merchant’ to a render. This is significant. A rentier is part of the possessing class, he can and, almost without knowing it, does make other people work for him, but he has very little direct power. Unlike Scrooge or the Cheerybles, he cannot put everything right by raising everybody's wages.

The seeming inference from the rather despondent books that Dickens wrote in the fifties is that by that time he had grasped the helplessness of well-meaning individuals in a corrupt society. Nevertheless in the last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (published 1864-5), the good rich man comes back in full glory in the person of Boffin.

Boffin is a proletarian by origin and only rich by inheritance, but he is the usual deus ex machina, solving everybody's problems by showering money in all directions. He even ‘trots’, like the Cheerybles. In several ways Our Mutual Friend is a return to the earlier manner, and not an unsuccessful return either. Dickens's thoughts seem to have come full circle. Once again, individual kindliness is the remedy for everything.

In the end, The LA Times piece and the position of CIW both want to adopt this Dickensian position: If all the people in the supply chain would be more charitable — if consumers would just pay more and retailers pass on the overage and producers pass on the payments — then the world would be better.

Indeed this is made very explicit in the LA Times editorial that commented on the series. What is the title? — Want to help Mexican farmworkers? Tell stores to carry fair trade products:

Perhaps the easiest and most reliable way to know that farmworkers have been treated decently is by buying what are known as fair trade products. Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit that works with growers around the world to help them operate their businesses at a profit while acting responsibly toward their employees and the environment. The organization also audits farms regularly to ensure that growers are living up to their agreements.

Fair trade products are labeled accordingly, usually including a black, white and green logo with the words “Fair Trade Certified.” But some stores have only a few such products; they would stock more if consumers requested them.

We respect the inclination behind Fair Trade. The desire to raise up people and communities is nothing but admirable.

Indeed, when we developed The London Produce Show and Conference, we worked hard to attract substantial Fair Trade participation.

Yet, the LA Times has it slightly wrong. Urging retailers to carry Fair Trade product will do almost nothing in the end.

Consumers buying Fair Trade product will lead to a lot more Fair Trade product being available. This, however, means that consumers would have to sacrifice — give up money — in order to enhance the conditions of Mexican laborers. That is what Fair Trade is — it is a movement that advocates paying more money for goods from developing countries and then using that extra money to improve the condition of workers and their communities.

Now there are a lot of problems with Fair Trade. We’ve discussed some of them in pieces such as these:

Sainsbury’s Commits to Fairtrade — But Is It Fair For Everybody

Fairtrade’s Unfairness

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Tyranny Of Economics And The Goals Of Fairtrade

Pundit’s Mailbag — Fairtrade From A European Perspective

Pundit’s Mailbag — Fairtrade And Harsh Capitalism

Organic Definition Under Attack By Group Opposed  To Air Freighting

Banana Import Policies In Europe Defy Logic And Ultimately Hurt Consumers

There also are plenty of questions about Fair Trade — Verification of standards is uncertain, the degree to which funds reach the laborer is uncertain, etc.

But the bigger issue is that Fair Trade places the consumer in the role of Scrooge — the poor conditions of the work force are caused by consumers’ lack of generosity, and workplace improvements could be resolved by simply being more generous — much like post-ghost-visit Scrooge traipsing around giving away turkeys and shillings.

The problem is that money doesn’t work like that. Dickens was a great dramatist, focusing the reader on deserving poor people like the Cratchits and, specifically, on poor Tiny Tim, whose death itself would be prevented by simple generosity and kindness.

The problem, of course, is that the economy doesn’t end there. If Scrooge takes money and helps Tiny Tim, we may, as readers, all feel good. In fact, though, that means Scrooge has less money to invest in a new factory and that factory would have supplied many jobs and helped many little children.

Equally, even if all consumers hear the story of the Mexican laborers and gladly pay more to help — the question always has to be where that money comes from. If it comes from charitable giving – then perhaps this effort will cause worse suffering as the cure for cancer is postponed. If it comes from investment, will the conditions of these particular people be enhanced only at the cost of jobs not created and services not provided? If the money comes from expenditures, well the prosperity of the Mexican workers might be purchased at the impoverishment of a textile worker in Lesotho or Bangladesh.

There are serious issues to be addressed. But people who offer jobs are not the evil ones — regardless of how bad those jobs are. The bigger question is why general living conditions throughout Mexico are so bad that people take those terrible jobs and see the jobs as a way to improve their lives.

In Mexico, you are dealing with an incredibly rich country that can’t quite get its act together. There is an immense corruption and a crony-capitalist culture.  When we wrote about Wal-mart and allegations of bribery in Mexico, we titled our piece, “Wal-mart And Payoff In Mexico: Bribery Or Extortion?” because the political and economic culture in Mexico is inherently corrupt and an enormous obstacle to progress.

Mexico has loads of oil, for example, and it is relatively inexpensive to produce; yet while US oil production has been zooming, it collapses in Mexico:

It is in the transformation of the Mexican political and economic system that the answer lies. A reform is needed that will bring true democracy, an end to crony capitalism and will finally allow the entrepreneurial spirit of the Mexican people to give a new burst of prosperity to the country. If Mexico were more prosperous, it would offer its people more opportunities and nobody would accept jobs in such horrible conditions.

But the LA Times, with its Fair Trade urgings, and the CIW, with its Scrooge analogies, are not proposing any such changes. They see something bad and urge rich people — American consumers or Scrooge — to be more charitable.

That may improve the lot of the particular person being looked at, but it will not enhance overall levels of prosperity. 

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