Letter to Steve Ells of Chipotle from Lucas Benitez

Mr. Steve Ells, CEO
1543 Wazee Street, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80202-1443
(303)222-2500 (fax)

Dear Mr. Ells,

My name is Lucas Benitez, and I am writing on behalf of the (CIW).  The CIW is a membership-led organization of agricultural workers based in Immokalee, Florida.  Florida is the country’s leading producer of fresh tomatoes, and many of our members pick the tomatoes that are sold across the country in restaurants like Chipotle.  Your company and our organization stand at two ends of the same industry.

We are writing to you today because your company’s manifesto — “Food with Integrity” — gives us hope.  As you’ll see, I refer to your company’s own words frequently here below because those words are not only refreshing and inspiring, but quite often capture very effectively the goals that we share in building a better food industry.

For several years now, we have been organizing in our community and in communities across the country to promote our own mission, an idea we have named “Not just fast, but fair food.”  As farmworkers, we are a vital part of our country’s food industry – without the grueling, dangerous work we do under a hot sun every day, food would never leave the farms to reach our country’s tables.  Yet, despite the value of our contribution, most farmworkers continue to suffer from want and degradation that harkens back to the famous 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame.” Widespread poverty and human rights violations continue to be the unquestioned norm for farmworkers across the country, and the communities where tomatoes are grown and picked in Florida are no exception.  As it stands today, the produce we pick may well be fresh, delicious, and inexpensive, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be described as “fair.”

But your company’s unique vision and supply chain practices lend us to believe that Chipotle could be a key partner in helping us, in your words, “revolutionize the way America grows and gathers its food.” Today, the work we do and the conditions we face are hidden in the shadows, hidden even below those faced by farm animals, whose stress levels are tracked and cared for before our own.  But with your company’s help, we can cast a light on these unconscionable conditions and “shoulder our way into the consciousness of the American public” so that farmworker exploitation can, finally, become a thing of the past.

As you write in Chipotle’s manifesto, our situation – and the solution that we are working towards – cannot be captured easily in a sound bite.  We hope that you bear with us for a moment as we describe farm labor conditions today.  From there we will discuss the tremendous opportunity that has arisen to fundamentally change those conditions.  

The US Department of Labor (DOL) has described farmworkers as a labor force “in acute economic distress.” Tomato pickers earn about 45 cents for every 32-lb bucket of tomatoes they pick, working from dusk to dawn without the right to overtime pay.  The 45-cent piece rate hasn’t changed in nearly 30 years.  Annual income is also extremely low.  The DOL reports that farmworkers earn an average of only $7,500 – $10,000 per year.  Of course, the vast majority of farmworkers receive absolutely no benefits — no health insurance, no sick leave, no vacation pay — and no right to organize to address these conditions on our own.  

A significant percentage of farmworkers also toil in actual modern-day slavery, held against their will by violent employers.  This reality is as well-documented as it is deplorable: there have been five federal criminal prosecutions by the Department of Justice and the FBI for modern-day slavery in Florida fields in the past seven years, involving over a thousand farmworkers.  There are also currently several pending investigations.

That is the problem, but progress toward a solution is underway.  As you may already know, on March 8th of last year the CIW came to a far-reaching agreement with Yum Brands, ending a four-year old, national boycott of Taco Bell.  The agreement calls for Taco Bell to pay farmworkers an extra penny per pound for tomatoes it purchases, by means of a pass-through arrangement with its suppliers.  As workers earn just over a penny per pound today (45 cents per 32 lb bucket), that small premium could nearly double pickers’ wages if adopted at the industry level. 

Taco Bell and Yum Brands also agreed to work with us to strengthen their Supplier Code of Conduct, creating important new avenues for farmworkers to participate in the protection of their own rights and real consequences for suppliers who would violate their workers’ rights.

As Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum Brands, said at the press conference announcing the agreement, “Human rights are universal, and we hope others will follow our company’s lead.”  We, of course, agree with Mr. Blum – without the participation and support of other major tomato purchasers, Taco Bell’s action will have a more limited impact.  Taco Bell can’t do it alone.

Clearly, you and Chipotle’s leadership know best how these new principles might work within Chitpotle.  But from our perspective, your company’s track record gives us great hope that we can work together to build on the precedents set in the agreement with Yum Brands.  The principles established in that agreement – a fair wage and a voice for farmworkers in the protection and advancement of our own rights – are the foundation for what we would call “Work with Dignity,” something we feel you would agree must be a cornerstone for “Food with Integrity.” While the exact form those principles might take in Chipotle’s supply chain may differ from the form established in the Taco Bell agreement, their place in your company’s guiding philosophy seems natural and essential.

We would truly appreciate an opportunity to speak with you at your earliest convenience to discuss how we might work together to advance this growing partnership for human rights and social responsibility in Florida’s fields.  Please do not hesitate to contact me at 239-657-8311 or workers@ciw-online.org.


Lucas Benitez, CIW

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