04/08/2008

We All Bear Moral Responsibility to Ensure Fairness for Workers

Recently, we won a major victory against a subsidiary of a giant U.S. company that wanted to wash its hands of any responsibility for the alleged abuse of its workers. The parent company is a very familiar one; you surely know its brand. In fact, you probably have some of its products in your kitchen. I'm talking about Fresh Del Monte Produce, one of the world's leading suppliers of fresh fruits and vegetables, a company with $3.4 billion in net sales last year.

Fresh Del Monte's website says it is "deeply committed … to establishing a workplace where our employees around the world can work in secure and healthy conditions." Its subsidiary, Fresh Del Monte Produce Southeast, must not have gotten that message. Here's what happened:

At various times between 2003 and 2006, Del Monte Southeast employed about 500 migrant workers to plant, harvest and pack sweet onions in its fields west of Savannah in southeast Georgia.

Some of these laborers were U.S. migrant workers, and some were brought in from Mexico under our country's guestworker program. The Mexican guestworkers left their homes and families and spent considerable sums of money for the opportunity to work for the company.

The workers lived in labor camps operated by Del Monte. They worked in Del Monte's fields and used Del Monte's equipment. They were supervised daily by Del Monte employees.

The workers contend that they were consistently cheated when payday rolled around, as often happens with migrant workers. The hourly rate was sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but their pay stubs frequently reflected many fewer hours than they actually worked.

In 2006, we filed suit against Del Monte Southeast to help the workers recover their stolen wages. But the company had an ace in the hole: We're not responsible, it said, because the workers are actually employed by a labor contractor.

In this case, the "labor contractor" was a ninth-grade dropout who was 18 and had no particular experience in the job when the arrangement with Del Monte began. She handled the recruiting of the workers, but it was clear that Del Monte was the real employer.

The federal judge in our case rightly ruled that this labor contractor was really a Del Monte Southeast employee, and so were the hundreds of migrant workers. The case isn't over; we still have to prove the wage abuse in court or reach a settlement with Del Monte Southeast. But the ruling was crucial and was perhaps the most important skirmish in the legal fight against the company.

Sadly, this same scenario happens again and again throughout our country, especially when society's poorest and most vulnerable workers are involved. Big companies try to shield themselves from accountability for the mistreatment of their workers by hiding behind middlemen and subcontractors. We saw this repeatedly in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when large contractors employed layers of subcontractors – and migrant workers paid the price. It is one of the major abuses we pointed out in Close to Slavery, the report we released last year exposing rampant exploitation in the guestworker program.

Del Monte Southeast's practices may help keep its costs down. And when you pick up a Del Monte product from the grocery store shelf, you probably never think that you are benefiting from exploited labor.

But, in many cases, the people at the bottom of the food chain – the powerless people in our society – are going hungry so that we can eat more cheaply.

As consumers and citizens, we all bear a moral responsibility to ensure that workers are treated with fairness and dignity. In a democracy, our government should stand up for these workers as a reflection of our fundamental values. Unfortunately, as it has demonstrated again and again, we now have an administration that is more interested in coddling the wealthy than improving the lives of the working folks who do the heavy lifting that underpins our economy.

We must demand better from our leaders in government and business.