Category Archives: Corporate responsibility

Publix and that Pesky Penny

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s a pleasant Sunday in Lakeland, not too hot and not too cool. It’s a comforting end to a very long walk for about 150 farm laborers, who marched 200 miles from Fort Myers last month to put pressure on Publix Super Markets.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the closest thing to a union that these impoverished, mostly immigrant tomato pickers have, has been trying for years to get Publix to join the Fair Food Coalition, in which suppliers and purchasers agree to pay the workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked.

That one penny can mean up to $70 more per day for a worker. Eleven other corporations, including restaurant giant Yum! Brands, have joined the coalition, but Publix has refused to join or even meet with the workers or coalition leaders.

So the marchers were on their way to the gates of Publix’s corporate headquarters to stage a rally. Along the way they sang, chanted and waved signs and banners bearing the familiar words of labor movements everywhere – fairness, justice, unity. They were joined by several hundred others for this final stage, people who came from around the state and even around the country to show their support. (News account with photo here.)

The CIW has gotten a lot of support from religious leaders, especially the Catholic Church. Bishop John Noonan of the Diocese of Orlando spoke to the marchers after they arrived in Lakeland. And in the crowd, several religious groups were represented. The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, quipped, “This is our Palm Sunday parade into the temple of commerce,” even though it wasn’t Palm Sunday.

Also among the marchers was a hero to many young evangelical Christians, the author Shane Claiborne. He had come down from Philadelphia, where he lives and works in a communal urban ministry. A dozen years ago, he walked in a similar march with the CIW.

“I’ve gotten to know these people as friends,” he told me in a Southern drawl. “It’s a very beautiful movement. It invites people to be who they could be.” Referring to the late George Jenkins, the founder of Publix, and the Jenkins family, he said, “I know they’re Methodists. There’s no doubt in my mind John Wesley would be alongside these walkers.

“Publix has been known as a good company that does a lot for the community,” he continued. “This is another opportunity for them to do good. It’s a really simple issue: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I have a number of friends who work for Publix, and it’s where my family usually shops. I’ve seen firsthand the community projects supported by Publix Charities. So I’m a little puzzled by Publix’s corporate stance.

Its position has been that this is a labor dispute, to be settled between the growers and the workers. Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten told The Ledger of Lakeland that the company would pay the extra penny per pound if that’s what the growers charged.

“This is what we mean when we say, ‘Put it in the price,’” she said.

Patten also raised the prospect of Publix having to get involved in disputes with any of its other thousands of suppliers. I can see the point, but fresh produce is a unique commodity that depends heavily on intensive, brute-force, unskilled (and therefore cheap) labor. These workers are crucial to Publix’s supply chain, and I would think they could see the benefit of cooperating with the other parties involved.

As it is, it leaves the impression of a company just wanting to avoid controversy and hoping that if it ignore the issue, the whole thing will go away.

From a corporate point of view, it might work. From a moral point of view, not so much.

The CIW workers quoted George Jenkins’ own words against the company: “Don’t let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.”

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The Moral Cost of a T-shirt

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Next time you buy a T-shirt at Disney World or Sears or Walmart, don’t smell it too closely. You might catch a scent of charred flesh.

The Associated Press reported recently that in the burned-out remains of the Tarzeen Fashions Ltd. factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a fire killed 112 workers, manufactured clothing and account books showed orders for several Western corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores, Sears and Disney.

An AP photo showed a sweatshirt lying on the floor of the factory bearing the cartoon image of Lightning McQueen, the hero of the Disney-owned Pixar movie “Cars.”

It is hardly a shock that garment-factory workers in Bangladesh and other Third World countries labor in unsafe conditions. In fact, more than 300 have died in fires in Bangladesh in the past six years, according to the AP.

These workers endure hardships, low wages and sometimes death so we can buy inexpensive clothing.
Western corporations who profit handsomely from this trade claim that they monitor conditions and don’t do business with factories that have unsafe conditions. Sears, Wal-Mart and Disney all said they had cut off contracts with Tarzeen Fashions because it violated safety standards and blamed subcontractors for placing orders with Tarzeen without their knowledge.

Perhaps, but it is hard to believe that someone at these corporations was not aware of where their apparel was being made.

We hear a lot these days that the free market is the answer to everything and that government regulation kills jobs. I once heard the uber-free-market economist Milton Friedman say in a lecture that during the era around the turn of the 20th century in America, when unregulated working conditions and abusive employer practices were rampant, American families raised their standard of living more than during any other period in our history.

That may be true, but they did so by working forced 12-hour days and sending their children to work in sweatshops and open-pit steel mills, where they routinely lost limbs. Lacking legal compulsion, corporate responsibility is rare.

Consider a case similar to the Tarzeen factory. A garment factory on the upper floors of a building caught fire and 146 people died, either by jumping to their deaths or from smoke inhalation or burns. The victims were mostly young women, the youngest 14. Managers had locked the exit doors – to prevent theft, they said.

This incident, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, happened March 25, 1911 in New York City. It remains the fourth-worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and it resulted in stronger regulation of working conditions.

There is a moral calculation that does not figure into Friedman’s econometric measures, an offense to conscience that we cannot stand when it comes to fairness and justice. If government regulation kills jobs, the absence of it kills people, and we have correctly decided we will not allow that.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were put on trial for manslaughter. They were acquitted but lost a civil suit. Police in Bangladesh announced that they arrested three managers at the Tarzeen factory who had locked the doors, preventing the workers from escaping.

It’s possible they will be acquitted as well, but already there have been large-scale protests in Bangladesh about working conditions. Perhaps stricken consciences will override economic interests and there will be reforms in Bangladesh.

Disney, Sears and all Western corporations that deal in garments manufactured overseas could go a long way toward helping that happen, if they want to. If that means adding a buck to the cost of that Mickey Mouse T-shirt, well, at least it won’t be stained with blood.

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