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How Chipotle Got on Board With Rights for Farmworkers

"Human Cost of Food" panel at the International Chefs Congress

Jose Duarte (from left), Gerardo Reyes-Chavez and Barry Estabrook at the panel discussion on “The Human Cost of Food” at the International Chefs Congress.

Except for unseasonably dreary weather, the Cultivate Festival — held by burrito giant Chipotle Mexican Grill to promote its much-praised, large-scale sustainability efforts — went off without a hitch Oct. 6 in Denver, the company’s home base.

However, things could have been very different. Just two days earlier, Chipotle finally agreed to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an advocacy group for Florida’s farmworkers — particularly immigrants enduring conditions of wage slavery — by signing the Fair Food Agreement, which commits the nation’s major tomato purchasers and growers to uphold human rights in the field. Participating supermarket chains and food-service conglomerates pay an extra penny per pound for their tomatoes, which goes to workers of member farms that are in turn required to abide by a code of conduct covering all manner of once-rampant abuses, from forced labor to sexual harassment. In coming on board, Chipotle avoided a massive protest that threatened to undermine its feel-good message at the festival.

Seeds of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

It’s just one piece of a puzzle that has been falling into place since the CIW formed in 1993 — though the rate of completion was arguably accelerated by the 2011 publication of James Beard Award-winning journalist Barry Estabrook’s groundbreaking exposé, “Tomatoland.” In June 2011, Estabrook penned a Soapbox column for Zester Daily about the CIW’s struggle to persuade Trader Joe’s to join Whole Foods Market and fast-food companies including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Taco Bell in signing the Fair Food Agreement. Last February, it finally did, much to Estabrook’s shock: “They were so adamantly opposed, and now they’re a cooperative partner. … They resist and resist, and use the same excuses over and over like a broken record, and then, through the media attention on the CIW’s petitions and demonstrations, they get a horrible backlash, the pressure builds up, and they say, ‘We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to make this problem go away, but it’s not going to cost us anything to pay the penny per pound.'”

Exploitation, discrimination of farmworkers

I spoke to Estabrook on Oct. 3, the day before Chipotle’s announcement and the day after he joined CIW spokesman Gerardo Reyes-Chavez and a longtime acquaintance of mine, Chef Jose Duarte of Boston restaurant Taranta, on a panel at StarChefs’ seventh annual International Chefs Congress titled “The Human Cost of Food: Chefs Supporting Farmworkers’ Rights.” As a Denverite myself, I’d been watching the news about the Cultivate Festival and the controversy surrounding it ever since Duarte alerted me to the cause after his trip to Florida, where he learned of “people who were locked into their trucks at night, up to 10 people in one trailer. People working with crops while they’re being fumigated. Discrimination by gender and age.”

Deciding that chefs need to demand fairly traded products, Duarte organized the panel — and sure enough, said Estabrook, “At the end of it, a chef at a restaurant in Tampa came up to me and said, ‘We had no idea that this was going on in our backyard; we are now aboard.’ That alone is why I went: Because chefs are extremely influential. …  If one chef says, ‘I’d rather not buy tomatoes grown by a slave,’ nothing might happen, but if two or three do, a trend has begun.”

Of course, independent restaurateurs don’t have an ounce of the buying power of chains. It’s the latter whose cooperation has ensured the Fair Food Program is working, says Estabrook. Once cut off from any channel of negotiation, many Florida tomato workers now “get told about their rights, about how to file grievances. Human resource managers are passing out cards with a 24-hour hotline number. Crew bosses were once the workers’ entire world; now it extends all the way up to the chairman of McDonald’s.”

Making change before the Cultivate Festival

So when I told Estabrook that the Denver Post, reporting Sept. 27 on the upcoming Cultivate Festival, quoted Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold as saying, “For the last three years, all of the Florida tomatoes we have used have come from growers who have signed the Fair Food Agreement, which creates the same result as if we had signed ourselves,” Estabrook begged to differ.

“What Chipotle is doing is essentially freeloading on the backs of the people who are involved in the agreement,” he said. “First of all, it’s the end buyer, not the grower, who pays the extra penny per pound.” Estabrook calculated that to the difference between making $50 and $80 per day. Then he added: “But it’s about more than the money. Take one of the sexual harassment cases I heard about. This particular labor contractor was very good at his job, besides his inability to keep his paws off women, so the company that employed him was reluctant to take action against him. It finally took the big buyer to step up and say, ‘Zero tolerance is zero tolerance.’ Chipotle’s trying to get the PR advantage of saying, ‘We’re aboard,’ when they’re not. My ultimate answer to them is ‘Guys, if Taco Bell, which makes no pretense of being a conscientious steward of anything, can sign, so can you.’ ”

Clearly, the groundswell of protest — not only on the ground but also in the form of a petition signed by such heavyweights as “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, “Stuffed and Starved” scholar Raj Patel, and Estabrook — persuaded Chipotle CEO Steve Ells to rethink his position in the nick of time. As Reyes-Chavez put it, “This is a really important moment for food-service corporations. The landscape is changing. We have the most powerful representatives of the fast-food industry on board already, and we only need a few more from the supermarket segment to arrive at the day when business as usual is not a race to the bottom. The 21st-century supermarket no longer has the luxury of distancing itself from labor conditions. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to do the right thing and treat workers right. If you don’t, then the market consequences will apply. It’s just a matter of time.” Look out, Kroger’s.

Top photo: Jose Duarte (from left), Gerardo Reyes-Chavez and Barry Estabrook at the panel discussion on “The Human Cost of Food” at the International Chefs Congress.

Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of  "Food Lover's Guide to Denver & Boulder" and "Denver and Boulder Chef's Table" from Globe Pequot Press. Her website is or follow her @Denveater.