Is it a myth: Trader Joe’s as an ethical company?

| June 20, 2011

I was recently reading an NY Times article documenting the utterly dreadful working conditions endured by labourers in the Florida tomato growing industry, when an unexpected thing happened.

I discovered that a roll-call of companies generally regarded as highly exploitative and of dubious ethical character – McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc. – had gone ahead and finally signed an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange which, according to the Times, begins to address the most significant outrages and abuses suffered by the workers:

“… through the core “penny-a-pound” increase in the price wholesale purchasers pay, workers’ incomes could go up thousands of dollars per year. The agreement also provides for a time-clock system in the fields, which has led to a shorter workday and less (unpaid) waiting time; portable shade tents for breaks (unbelievable that this didn’t exist previously — I spent a half-hour in the open fields and began to melt); reduced exposure to pesticides; worker-to-worker education on rights; a new code of conduct for growers with real market consequences if workers’ rights are violated; and more.”

But – and this is what surprised me – in the column of those companies which refused to even consider signing this agreement to implement the most basic rights and standards available to a worker in the US, I saw one name which stood out: TRADER JOE’S.

That’s right: on the one hand, lawyers for a company which, during the humiliating McLibel trial, became infamous for its practices – including the legal fact that its employees worldwide “do badly in terms of pay and conditions” – saw no problem in signing an agreement to implement, and more crucially, safeguard rights and standards considered absolutely basic to anyone who doesn’t work as a slave.

On the other hand, the supermarket company who loudly proclaim their ‘requirement’ that suppliers meet ‘very strict’ ethical standards refuses to sign a document which amounts to a mere pay raise from the current level of around $30 per day, to the still obscene(ly low) wage of around $80 per day.

In the interests of fairness, I’ve included a link to Trader Joe’s response to this issue, detailing exactly why they felt unwilling to sign. But, as the author of a book covering the scandal  Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook, highlights in a compellingly simple scenario: if the agreement made enough financial and legal sense for eminent and highly experienced corporate lawyers from hyper-profitable outfits such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and KFC to sign, why not uber-ethical Trader Joe’s?

POST-SCRIPT ADDITION: Thanks to Michelle Pronovost for bringing to my attention CIW’s full rebuttal of the statements and reasoning behind the response I included from Trader Joe’s. No surprises that this highly secretive company can be shown to be playing a deceptive game with facts, evasion and clever wordplay.